I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do on this blog. I’m not thrilled about “book reviews,” not that I do those often, because there are a million reviews out there for every single book. No matter how good mine are, they won’t add much to that noise.
I’m also not thrilled with the “writing advice” type of posts. Again, there’s a million articles saying exactly the same types of things I say.
Back in July, I wrote something called Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction. It was an experimental piece of writing. It was part essay, part narrative, part literary criticism, part fiction, part nonfiction, part writing exercise in imitating DFW’s style, part philosophy, etc.
It’s not very easy to describe. The point was to have each piece reinforce the other bits.
It took everything I had to bite my tongue when people seemed to think it was just an essay trying to make the straightforward argument that Infinite Jest is about addiction. I still don’t want to overly describe it, but I think it’s fair to say, pretty much everyone missed the point.
(Like, did people really think I was consuming Infinite Jest everyday just like an addict and obsessing over its meaning just like the characters did with The Entertainment, and even waking up with withdrawal symptoms in an increasingly frantic narrative voice despite it being a written essay?)
Anyway, that was partly my own fault. I haven’t really done stuff like that on this blog. It’s also the type of thing I like doing more than the other stuff. It feels valuable and creative in a way the other stuff doesn’t. It adds something to the blogosphere you can’t find in a million other places.
It also feels somewhat particular to this medium in the sense that book reviews and writing advice is so much easier to digest through a Youtube video or podcast. Video and audio have cornered the book review/writing advice market.
Experimental essays that dive into social commentary and philosophy and literary criticism are better suited to the written word, in my opinion. Being, you know, essays.
What I’m trying to say is that I want to cut back on writing a post every X days by riffing on a poorly constructed sentence just because that’s all I could come up with. Instead, I want to focus more on these harder to produce, more creative posts that are unique to me.
I will keep doing the “Year of …” series, because I’m pretty excited for the one I have planned next year (and The Name of the Rose is pretty great). I also expect to keep doing some book reviews and writing advice things and random things that pop up. I’m just not going to force it.
This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.
I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).
The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.
So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:
We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.
Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.
To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.
Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.”
So, I want to carefully keep track of that.
Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language.
In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).
He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:
But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.
This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them.
Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.
Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).
Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks.
Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.
But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept.
Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.
Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.
Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.
Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.
Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about.
He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.
I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.
He begins with an observation about the media:
…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).
In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.
Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.
Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:
We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.
Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.
This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”
It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.
But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).
Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media.
The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred.
Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.
We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.
I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).
Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.
I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day.
The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels.
The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.
Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.
It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.
But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.
His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.
I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.
I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.
I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.
I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.
I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore.
I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.”
Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.
I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.
Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.
The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.
I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.
Science has always been in conflict with narratives.
I don’t think this is that controversial.
He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge.
The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.
This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.
The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.
I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.
This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.
Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.
Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science.
Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).
All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?
And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.
The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.
Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?
There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.
How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.
I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.
When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.
I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.
I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.
The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.
I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.
The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.
We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.
Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.
While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.
This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.
Answer: No. This isn’t going to be some conspiracy theory post about living in a police state and carrying around devices that constantly spy on us even when they’re off: Big Brother is watching. That’s been done to death. This is a post about how many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have manifested in very unlikely places and ways.
One of the scariest and least likely predictions has to do with revising history to fit the current narrative. The reason this seems so unlikely in the novel is that it is such a monstrous task. Everything is physical, so every newspaper, book, and so on must be totally incinerated to put out a revised version. It is surprising Orwell even came up with this with how unrealistic and massive such an undertaking would be. Here’s a quote describing it.
“This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”
In today’s world everything is digital. It looks like pretty much all print media will be solely digital before too long (we’re talking years, but not decades?). This means no more newspapers or books to be incinerated. One quick click of a button revises every single copy.
It is true that the internet remembers everything, so it will be possible to find the older copy. But who’s going to do that? No one has the time or patience to sift through internet archives to find if something has been changed. I’m not saying any reputable news source does this (e.g. the New York Times post “Updates” at the bottom of an article that has been changed to notify the reader). But this unbelievable aspect of 1984 has become much more believable with how we get our information now.
Another disturbing aspect of Orwell’s dystopia is the concept of “doublethink,” and to a lesser extent, the formation of Newspeak where word’s are redefined so they can only be used to support a given message. Here’s a quote where doublethink is first introduced:
“His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, …”
A prime example of doublethink in our current world is in Twitter public shaming. These people claim the moral high ground while destroying an innocent person’s life over a politically incorrect joke. That is doublethink so extreme that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned it.
The examples that recur throughout the novel are “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” I have a new one from recent news. Our own politically correct coded language has hit such doublethink extremes that one cannot utter the phrase “all lives matter,” without a certain demographic hearing “black lives don’t matter.” To put it in the above terms “equality is inequality.”
The last disturbing point I’d like to address is something called the “Two Minutes Hate.” If it’s been a while since you’ve read the book, this is a moment in the day where everyone watches hate propaganda and gets all worked up about it. Winston, at first doesn’t totally buy it, but then as everyone around him gets angrier, he finds himself joining in, not even having to fake it. Then it ends, and everyone goes about their business as if it never happened.
It seems this is how a lot of people use Twitter. They go about their day. They randomly check Twitter. They see a pile-on hate mob trending. At first, the dongle joke doesn’t seem so bad, but after reading more and more hate comments, they start to get worked up. After about two minutes of this, they realize how insensitive this straight white man was to make a private joke to his friend (BB is watching). We have our own Newspeak. The word invented for this is “microaggression.” After getting worked up, this person doesn’t even have to fake their outrage as they tweet about firing him. Then they click off their phone and go about their business as if it never happened, just like the Two Minutes Hate.
In 1984 you can be accused of committing a thoughtcrime. The penalty is a public hanging. You don’t even have to act on it. Merely thinking the wrong thing amounts to a public death. It is scary how similar this is to someone like Justine Sacco, who dared to make a politically incorrect joke on Twitter. The mob tried to read her thoughts based on this and convicted her of a thoughtcrime against The Party. She proceeded to be publicly shamed for it. Her life was ruined.
Now there is no “Party” or “State” that is carrying this out like in the book, but the group that is doing this is politically motivated. The punishment isn’t as harsh, but the goal is the same: to incite fear in anyone that dares to think differently. I’m not sure if we should be more or less scared that it isn’t some Leviathan government forcing this on us. It is we the people who have imposed this on ourselves.
Today I’d like to talk about Richard Rorty. He was an American philosopher that became famous in the late 70’s and 80’s for advocating a new form of pragmatism. I thought this might be a timely topic, because we’ve been spending a lot of time on making sense of data. Modern society has become polarized on a bunch of issues which basically stem from more fundamental questions: what is knowledge and what is truth?
On the one side we have radical scientism. This side argues that in order to count something as knowledge, it must be falsifiable, formulated as a scientific hypothesis, and demonstrated with 95% certainty. There are of course much milder variants on this side. For example, one might stipulate that all questions that naturally have a scientific formulation must meet scientific standards before we consider it to be reliable information, but science doesn’t have much to say about non-scientific questions.
The other side is radical skepticism or postmodernism (I know these are not at all the same thing). The radical skeptics claim that all knowledge is impossible, so we should be skeptical of all things that we hear (even if they were proven by a scientific study). I have a lot of sympathy for this side. Facebook alone makes me skeptical of basically anything anyone says, because I know that half of the interesting things I’m told probably come from a totally false Facebook post someone made. Everyone has bias and/or funding which skews results including supposedly objective scientific ones.
Postmodernism gives a bit more substance to this argument. It essentially says that we have no foundations anymore. Science can’t prove that science is getting at truth, so we shouldn’t treat it as a special class of knowledge. This “lack of foundations” argument ends up giving merit to a lot of dangerous ideas. Since the scientific method is no longer seen as the most reliable way to truth, maybe new age spirituality or alternative medicine actually works and is just as effective.
I’ll state my bias right up front. I tend to agree with the scientism viewpoint (although I’d probably call my stance “naturalism,” but let’s not get into that). Both sides make really good critiques of the other when done by a careful thinker. Science has assumptions that cannot be justified. It is merely building models. Maybe our model of gravity is totally wrong, but just happens to consistently give really accurate predictions when tested.
Science critiques the other positions as well. Skepticism is not self-consistent, because it requires you to be skeptical of skepticism. The lack of foundations in postmodernism does not mean that all things are equally likely to be true.
These differing foundations manifest in huge shouting matches: evolution vs intelligent design, medicine vs alternative medicine, atheism vs theism, and on and on. The main reason I err on the side of science is because all people seem to think that science provides the best answers until those answers disagree with their previously held beliefs. It is only then that the lack of foundations is pointed out or the bias of the researcher is brought up. See also this post which shows why the scientific method is needed to surpass bias and this post for an ethical reason to err on the side of science.
Anyway, we’ve passed 500 words already and I’m still just setting up why Rorty is such an important thinker. His views seem to just gain importance as data sets keep getting bigger and we get confused about who we should believe. Rorty basically comes up with a middle ground which is sometimes called neopragmatism. He entered the scene at a time where both sides seemed right and wrong. His position is that the postmodernists are right that there are no foundations, but this doesn’t matter because some systems are useful. Let’s unpack this a bit.
First off, if this interests you, then go read Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A quick blog post cannot do it justice. It is quite complex and subtle. One side says that they’ve built a fantastic pillar called science on the solid foundations of peer review, objectivity, etc. The other side says that all our institutions can be knocked down, because there are no solid foundations.
Rorty has a somewhat shocking response that both sides are wrong. There are no foundations (i.e. external objective standards), but this doesn’t mean the pillars are unstable. It just means that the rules of the game depend on which game we’re playing. When playing tennis, we must follow the rules of tennis. When doing science, we must play by the rules of science. There is no universal, correct rule set for all games. It is just dependent on the game. That’s okay. None are more “right” than another, because this concept doesn’t even make sense.
So what is truth? Rorty says that we can think about justification, but not about truth. How we justify beliefs is dependent on the system we are in. We know how to use the word true in each system, so we don’t have to define it. This is a very classic pragmatic response. When speaking of scientific truth, we have a collection of things we mean. When speaking of literary truth we have another. These truths are dependent on time and place (e.g. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”)
So how is this different from the extreme relativism of postmodernism? Well, Rorty would say that usefulness has to be taken into account. There is no way to get at objective truth, but some systems are more useful for certain purposes than others. For example, at this point in time, science seems to be the most useful system to answer scientific questions. Your computer is working, polio was eradicated, we put people on the moon, etc, etc. As the internet meme goes, “Science. It works, bitches!” And so even though we don’t know if science is getting at truth (which reasonable scientists fully admit, by the way), it does consistently get at something useful. There may be other contexts in which scientific rigor is not the most useful system.
Rorty develops a theory that fully admits that the postmodernists are right when they say that we have no basis for foundations anymore. But he doesn’t descend into extreme relativism. He leaves room for some systems of thought to be more useful than others. They don’t have a monopoly on truth, because we don’t even know what that means. Relativism doesn’t even really make sense from Rorty’s viewpoint, because you can never leave your current context from which to make a relative judgement. And that’s why I think he’s so important. He points out that our shouting matches aren’t about content or truth. They are about coming at the same question from different systems.