My 30 minute talk about liberal democracy and the ethos of comedy, followed by a 30 minute discussion, was last night (February 17th). You can view the talk on YouTube by clicking on this link.
It’s been a long hiatus. But I want to pick up where I left off. I have three issues on the table:
1. Cognitive versus non-cognitive theories of art.
2. The very distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive appears to motivate a fact/value divide—as shown most dramatically in the emotivist, non-cognitive theories of ethics/morals developed by the logical positivists in the mid-20th century.
3. I am still angling to get eventually to a consideration of the connection of art to meaning—with the corollary of considering if meaning differs substantially from information and/or causal explanation. On this last point, I am courting, it would seem, my own dichotomy. I, for the most part, have no commitment to proving the arts “distinctive” in some absolute way. I don’t feel a need to show that the arts do something that other activities we would not consider artistic do not. But I do suspect that a focus on or concern with meaning leads in different directions than a focus on explanation. To explain how hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water says little to nothing about the “meaning” that interaction might have. At least, that’s my intuition.
But today’s post focuses in on #2, the fact/value divide. I think I am stealing my basic insight here from my friend Allen Dunn, but will follow a path derived from Wittgenstein and Dewey to make my case.
Consider the following sentences, all of which (except the last two) use some form of the verb “to be,” and take the form of assertions.
1. There is a red house. [The speaker points at a yellow house.]
2. There is a dog. [The speaker points at a cat.}
3. Henry is taller than John.
4. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.
5. Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American history.
6. Incest is wrong.
7. “All men are created equal.”
8. Hitting your child is wrong.
9. Moby Dick is the greatest American novel.
10. Moby Dick is a chaotic mess.
11. Moby Dick is about a milkman who loses his job.
12. James has Parkinson’s Disease.
13. William has prostrate cancer.
The usual, intuitive, reasons for believing in a fact/value distinction are 1. The belief that values are human and are added on top of natural facts and 2. The notion that facts, generally, are verifiable and thus non-controversial, while disagreements over values are rife and irresolvable. It is easy to agree that this copy of Moby Dick has a red cover, but it is harder to reach agreement over the artistic value of Moby Dick.
On number one: my inclination would be to say facts are as human as values—insofar as facts are fabricated (in the ways Bruno Latour’s work has made familiar to us) and that the mobilization of facts, their use in rhetorics of persuasion that aim to achieve agreement, is a human enterprise. (Let’s leave speculation about the consciousness of animals and plants to one side for the moment. I am a complete agnostic on this topic. We learn more and more every year about animal and plant consciousness. So I do not deny out of hand that these non-human creatures might have their ways of ascertaining facts and, crucially, bringing apprehended facts to bear in subsequent behavior, and communicating with others.) For humans, the key for me is that facts are understood as pieces of information that have been produced, and then mobilized in processes of deliberation and the formation of individual and collective intentions.
In other words, once a fact has been fabricated in the Latourian fashion, it then becomes something that is used in making plans and in trying to persuade others to assist with those plans. Thus, a hurricane is not a fact until it has been made into one by an assemblage of the symptoms and consequences and causes gathered under the name “hurricane” by meteorologists—and then that name (with all that is associated with it) is used (for example) to justify an evacuation order. In short, on this account, there is no reason to think the creation of values differs significantly from the creation of facts. Both facts and values are assemblages that bring together various factors to designate something as the case (i.e. hurricanes cause damage; incest is wrong).
What I take from Allen refers to number two, the idea that facts are non-controversial while values generate endless disagreements. Allen’s point was that we have many value statements that are almost universally accepted. Very few people insist that incest is just fine. Far fewer people call incest OK than believe that alien abduction happens. We cannot sort things into the fact bin and the value bin on the basis of agreement over the truth of fact assertions as contrasted to value assertions. The American experience of the past four years has merely brought the idea that facts are incontrovertible to its knees.
At this point, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “anything goes.” This is where Wittgenstein and Dewey can prove helpful—even though they will not “solve” the problem of disagreement. But they can help us think about it more clearly.
The sentences I offer at the top of this post are Wittgenstein-like. For sentence one, where a speaker calls a yellow house red, we would first ask him to look again. If he repeated his assertion, we could only conclude that he is color-blind (and would arrange for him to be tested for that condition), or that he doesn’t understand how the word “red” is applied in English (and would proceed to try to teach him the color terms and their application in English.)
For sentence two, where the speaker calls a dog a cat, we don’t even have known medical condition to appeal to. Now it is simply telling him that “we” (the speakers of English) call that animal a “dog” not a “cat.” This looks like sheer compulsion. There is no underlying reason or fact that justifies using the word “dog” instead of the word “cat.” It is just the way we do things in English. The agreement is motivated (perhaps) by its usefulness in facilitating communication, but nothing else underwrites the convention. For Wittgenstein, reasons stop at a certain point. This is where my spade turns, he writes. Reasons come to an end, and there is just the bald statement: this is what we do, this is how we think and act, this is what we believe.
What Dewey adds to this Wittgensteinian picture is the notion of “warrants.” Where there are disagreements over an assertion, there are reasons I mobilize in an effort to convince another that my assertion should be credited. It is important to recognize that the warrants vary widely depending on the nature of the assertion. The warrants for sentences one and two are, from a positivist point of view, pretty feeble. The only “verification” is to show that this use of the words “red” and “dog” is actually what English speakers do. There is no connection to natural facts involved.
When we get to sentence three, Henry is taller than John, we can stand the two boys next to each other. Here there appears to be a fact of the matter that can be “shown.” Agreement still depends on both parties understanding the term “taller” in the same way, but there is also (as the positivist sees it) “direct’ evidence for the assertion.
Sentence four shows how quickly the positivists’ view of facts falls apart. There is no “direct” proof that Lincoln was the 16th president. In a very real way, we must take that fact on faith, placing credence in various documents. We in 2020 can have no first-hand knowledge of Lincoln having been president. In part, we take that fact on authority. But we also believe that fact because questioning it would undermine all kinds of other beliefs we have. Our beliefs “hang together” to establish a holistic picture of our world and our place in it. To discredit a single assertion can, in many cases, threaten to unravel a whole web of beliefs. We are, for this reason, “conservatives” in the matter of beliefs, William James says. We want to conserve, to not upset the apple cart. We have to have very strong reasons (of interest, or argument) to give up a settled belief. Saying this, however, indicates the extent to which we believe what it is “comfortable” to believe—and thus points to the ways we can believe things that, to others, seem to patently disregard compelling evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, “confirmation bias” points to the ways we credit anything that seems to shore up our current beliefs. We humans can be remarkably resistant to what others will claim are “the plain facts of the matter.”
Dewey’s notion of “warrants” tells us that what will “count” as evidence will vary from case to case. The evidence brought to back up the assertion that Lincoln was the 16th president is different from the evidence called up to claim he was the greatest American president. Of the asking for and giving of reasons there is no end. But the kinds of reasons offered must be deemed pertinent to the matter at hand.
Thus, when we get to the statements “incest is wrong,” or “all men are created equal,” we might be tempted to argue in terms of consequences. There are harmful biological consequences for inbreeding, and there might be harmful social consequences (violence, resentment, various other forms of conflict) from treating some as inferior to others. But incest was considered wrong long before there was any understanding of genetics, and the harmful consequences of inequality are uncertain. In the case of incest, there is not much (if any) disagreement. Certain persons might violate the injunction against it, but they recognize the force of the assertion in their keeping its violations secret. I am tempted to say that the assertion “incest is wrong” is akin to saying “that animal is a dog.” It is just the way this community does things. It is foundational to our being a community (we share a language; we share a belief than incest is wrong and that it should be forbidden). Our spade turns there.
The equality assertion is more debatable (as is the assertion that hitting a child is wrong). Arguments (reasons) are offered for both sides. Disagreements over consequences (installing equality breeds mediocrity; sparing the rod spoils the child) will be rife. Kant, of course, offers a different argumentative strategy, one that depends on seeing the contradiction in making an exception of oneself. You, Kant says, don’t want to be treated as an inferior. So why should you think that it is right for another to be so treated? Kantian arguments have proven no more decisive than consequential ones. But the point is that these two kinds of reasons are typical of the “warrants” offered in cases of moral assertions. Where they fail, we can only say “I have nothing more to offer. Here my spade turns.” The kinds of evidence/reasons offered are different than the kinds I offer against claims of alien abduction or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, but there comes a point where what I deem more than sufficient reason to believe something does not work for others. At that point, there is nothing further to be done.
The Moby Dick sentences make the point that in debates over aesthetic values different kinds of assertions will call for different “warrants.” The assertion that the novel is about a milkman is akin to someone calling a dog a cat. There is no place to go with such a disagreement; the parties to it are literally not speaking the same language. Wittgenstein’s point is that only where there is a fundamental agreement—we can call it the minimum required to be part of a community—can a disagreement then unfold. I can’t play a game of tennis if my opponent says balls that go into the net are do-overs. Unless we both stand within the constitutive rules of the game, the competition of an actual match cannot unfold. I can’t have a conversation about Moby Dick with someone who thinks it is the story of a milkman.
But the other two sentences about the novel require different warrants. To talk about it being the greatest American novel (just as any talk of Lincoln as the greatest American president) requires some kind of articulation of what makes a novel great and some attempt at comparison with other American novels my interlocutor might consider great. To say Moby Dick is a chaotic mess need not involve any comparison to other novels, while the criteria for “chaotic mess” will be different from the criteria for “greatness.” In both cases, I will presumably appeal to features of the novel, perhaps quoting from the text. In the Latour vision, these appeals to the text are acts of assemblage, of putting together my case, calling into presence various available sources—features of the text, the opinions of prior readers and critics, my own responses to the novel’s shifts of tone and topic etc.—to make my assertion credible.
I have included the last two sentences, which provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and prostrate cancer, to indicate how warrants in medical science also differ from one case to another. In prostrate cancer, we have blood tests and various forms of imaging that establish the “fact of the matter.” In Parkinson’s there are no such definitive tests. A patient is judged to have Parkinson’s on the basis of a bundle of symptoms (not all of which will be present in the majority of cases) and on the basis of how they respond to certain drugs or other treatments.
There are two conclusions to draw, I think. The first is pluralism. Our reasons for believing assertions vary; we offer to ourselves and others different arguments/reasons/evidence to undergird (or justify) what we do assert, what we do hold to be true or to be good to believe. (I recognize that I am going to have to think about the word “true” and the work it does when I take up the questions of meaning.)
The second is that the kind of reasons offered in different cases do not separate out along lines that coincide with the traditional way of understanding the fact/value divide. A consequential argument about the damage hurricanes produce takes a similar form to a consequential argument about the damage done by physically punishing a child. In both cases, we might very well point to previous instances to show what those consequences might be—or we may point to larger-scale studies of multiple instances to show the odds of bad consequences, even while admitting that in some cases not much harm ensues. And if, in the two cases of the hurricane and of child-rearing, we argue that humans should do all they can to mitigate the possible damage, we are asserting that suffering is a bad thing and to be averted wherever possible—an argument that can probably only be underwritten by some kind of Kantian reasoning about the good (the right) of all beings to avoid unnecessary pain.
Various writers—of the ones I know, Kenneth Burke and Hilary Putnam prominent among them—argue that fact and value are inextricably intertwined. That the two comes packaged together in our apprehension of the world. In Burke’s account, we have an “attitude” toward things and situations embedded within our apprehension of them. But this Burke position still accepts the analytic distinction between fact and value, even if that “analysis” comes after the moment of their combination in actual experience. The pluralism that Dewey points us toward suggests the distinction between fact and value misleads us altogether by suggesting that some things (Facts) are given and incontrovertible while others (Values) are human contrivances. Better to look at how both facts and values are “made” (just as William James asks us to consider how “truths” are made), while paying attention to the plurality of ways of making humans (and other creatures) deploy.
I won’t dwell as long on Nelson Goodman and Brian Massumi as I did on Susanne Langer because I want to move on to the larger stakes of trying to link art to cognition. But a quick look at what the two male theorists have to say will help me to clarify those stakes.
Goodman wants to overcome the traditional gap between reason and emotion, arguing (as Martha Nussbaum will do some thirty years later) that “the emotions function cognitively” (Languages of Art, 248, Goodman’s emphasis). “Also, emotions function cognitively not as separate items but in combination with one another and with other means of knowing. Perception, conception, and feeling intermingle and interact; and an alloy often resists analysis into emotive and nonemotive components. . . . I am not resting anything on the distinction between emotions and other elements in knowing, but rather insisting that emotion belongs with them. What does matter is that the comparisons, contrasts, and organization involved in the cognitive process often affect the participating emotions. Some may be intensified as colors are against a complimentary ground, or pointed up by subtle rhyming; other may be softened, as are sounds in a louder context. And some emotions may emerge as properties of the orchestrated whole. . . . In daily life, classification of things by feeling is often more vital than classification by other properties; we are likely to be better off if we are skilled in fearing, wanting, braving, or distrusting the right things, animate or inanimate, than if we perceive only their shapes, sizes, weights etc.” (249-51).
Notice how “classification” sneaks in. Talk of “cognition” seems to slide easily and almost inevitably into “recognizing” what sort of thing something presented to me in the here and now is. In other words, Kant’s determinative judgment. I cognize a thing by placing it in the right class: as a thing to be feared, as an example of the larger type of which I already have an image, a word, or a remembered encounter (Dewey’s “funded experience”). To know something is to know what it is, which is to know what I can expect of it, what consequences follow from its appearance in these circumstances (the pragmatic maxim).
Judgment entails getting that designation of what it is right. Bad judgments lead us to mistake what are the possible outcomes of this encounter, lead us to interact with this thing, this situation, in ways that do not produce expected or desired results. Cognition thus introduces the possibility of getting it right or wrong. Truth, in the pragmatist account, is demonstrated by the arrival of the expected, desired, results. Truth is what is good in the way of belief; truth is what happens to an idea—the idea being the initial judgment and the happening being what unfolds when that judgment is acted upon.
Goodman, no less than Langer, is thus brought to wonder what distinguishes the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic since he has made a general case for the entanglement of emotion with cognition, just as she has made a general case for the existence of “presentational, non-discursive symbols.” At the end of his defense of the centrality of emotion to cognition, Goodman writes: “Although many puzzles are thus resolved and the role of emotion in aesthetic experience clarified, we are still left without a way of distinguishing aesthetic experience from all other experience. Cognitive employment of the emotions in neither present in every aesthetic experience nor absent from every nonaesthetic experience” (251).
Goodman does not claim to provide a firm distinction between aesthetic and nonaesthetic experience. Instead, he offers some “symptoms” of the aesthetic (that I will not go into) and then considers non-utilitarian uses of symbols. Such uses exemplify cognitive processes as such—abstracted away from any attempt or desire to put the cognitive insight to use as a basis for action. We can see here the fairly traditional effort to disconnect the arts from “interest,” as well as the abstraction away from “content” toward a focus on “form.” In Goodman’s case, it is the “form” of cognition itself that becomes the focus, as contrasted to anything cognition might be about. He doesn’t in fact deploy the term “form” at all; instead the point is connected to what is done for its own sake, not for some other end. Here’s the relevant passage:
“Use of symbols beyond immediate need is for the sake of understanding, not practice; what compels is the urge to know, what delights is discovery, and communication is secondary to the apprehension and formulation of what is to be communicated. The primary purpose is cognition in and for itself” (258). In certain cases (which can be aesthetic or non-aesthetic for Goodman) we just cognize for the pleasure of cognizing. Exercising our cognitive capacities can be delightful.
The oddity of this retreat to a “pure” cognition is that it undermines Goodman’s ambitious desire to celebrate the “world-making” powers of imaginative, feeling-tinged cognition. His larger philosophical project is all about plural worlds, about the ways that possibilities are opened up by creative thought. His description of the ways aesthetic practices open up such possibilities is inspiring. “Establishment and modification of motifs, abstraction and elaboration of patterns, differentiation and interrelation of modes of transformation, all are processes of constructive search; and the measures applicable are not those of passive enjoyment but those of cognitive efficacy; delicacy of discrimination, power of integration, and justice of proportion between recognition and discovery” (261).
Certain uses of symbol, certain aesthetic constructions, allow us to “discover” new things about the world. “The peak of interest in a symbol tends to occur at the time of revelation, somewhere midway in the passage from the obscure to the obvious. But there is endurance and renewal too. Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form; the trenchant and laden symbol does not become worthless when it becomes familiar, but is incorporated in the base of further exploration. And where there is density in the symbol system, familiarity is never complete and final; another look many always disclose significant new subtleties” (260).
Here we have the lineaments of a very robust cognitive theory of symbols—one that sees their elaboration as tied to the opening up, the illumination of, the revelation of the world. There is no way to confine this way of deploying symbols exclusively to “the aesthetic,” but the suggestion is that elaboration, density, and the self-conscious use of symbols as agents of exploration is a predominant feature of at least some aesthetic work and practices. And it certainly seems like the pay-off is more than just a delight in exercising our cognitive powers.
One final note on Goodman. He offers his own version of Wordsworth’s “half-perceive, half-create” (from the Tintern Abbey powem), combined with William James’ understanding of how our beliefs must cohere. Goodman works to decenter “truth.” “Despite rife doctrine truth matters very little in science,” he insists (262). Rather, our truths or our beliefs are judged according to their “compatibility with our other interests” (263). We move back and forth between the novelties that imagination or a new experience introduce and our settled beliefs about the way the world is. And we work to make these two sources “fit” (264) one another. (Thus “fit” is not exclusively, or even primarily, about “correspondence” with the world.) The decentering of truth is tied to the pluralist insistence that the world is not simply and unalterably one way. The world is neither static nor non-malleable; our actions upon it (prompted by our beliefs and our imaginings) can create novelties. Thus Goodman’s last words in his book extol the “creation and comprehension of our worlds” (265), the Wordsworthian move of seeing both human imagination and natural fact as co-equals in the constitution of “the world.”
Very briefly on Massumi, who explicitly says he is against cognitive theories of art. (When I get to discussing non-cognitive theories, I will return to his work). But despite that claim, he adopts a version of Langer’s position that art reveals the “form” of basic mental processes. And like Langer, Massumi builds “formulation” (Langer’s term, not his) into the act of perception. The fundamental mental function is called “thinking-feeling” in Massumi’s work, so he is aligned with Langer and Goodman in the insistence that feelings are essential to cognition. And then he argues that the visual arts deliver “a feeling of seeing sight caught in its own intensive act” (Semblance and Event,[MIT Press, 200] 70). Such art stages “the thinking-feeling of vision as it happens”(70).
What Massumi does not address is what effect this staging has. He avoids (not surprisingly given his post-structuralist leanings) any notion that the staging makes us “conscious” or “self-conscious” about perceptual processes that usually unfold without being recognized or analyzed. And there is, of course, the question of how he comes by his own access to the way perception works. What are the sources of his insight—and what are the processes by which that insight is articulated?
In short, like Langer, Massumi is making a second-order claim about art’s “content.” Art does not primarily provide us with a perceptual experience; rather, it presents the deep structure or the enabling conditions of perceptual experience. In the same vein, Langer has argued that art does not provide emotional experience, but reveals the “form” that emotions take.
Thus, Langer and Massumi (we might say) save art for philosophy; art does transcendental work of a Kantian kind, uncovering the necessary conditions of perception, thought, and emotion. Even putting my hostility to transcendental thinking to one side, the intellectualism of their account of the arts renders it pretty implausible. Is that really what an audience takes away from a performance of a Beethoven quartet or viewing a Francis Bacon painting? Do these second-order considerations really overwhelm first-order responses? Langer, of course, would argue that it is sign of “good art” to subordinate the first-order responses to the second-order apprehension of “form.” Massumi (again, not surprisingly given postmodern diffidence about distinctions between “good” and meretricious art) doesn’t go there, but surely he would have to admit that many art works don’t push us toward second-order reflections or revelations. We need a fuller account of just how it works in the cases where it does work.
But that still leaves the question of “so what”? What is the pay-off, the Jamesian “cash value?” Massumi makes fairly extravagant claims for the political importance of his views, but the concrete connection between a theoretical account (a cognition) of how thinking-feeling perception works and the consequences for action (political or otherwise) is never made. One problem is the generality of the account. If that is how thinking-feeling works, then there are no alternatives, nothing to do. You simply now understand a process that is going to happen, willy-nilly, whether you understand it or not. There is no politics without alternatives that can be acted upon. Philosophical generalizations, especially when they identify “necessary” conditions, are the death knell of politics.
Let me end with a quick statement about stakes that leads into my next post. Cognitive theories of art are attempts to make art intellectually respectable in the face of empiricism, logical positivism, and utilitarianism. Which of these three is seen as the threat to art’s dignity and importance will influence how the theory is presented. The most global approach (seen in Langer, Goodman, and Massumi, as well as in Dewey, Nussbaum, and others) is to insist on the cognitive relevance of emotion—and to see the aesthetic as one set of practices very attuned to the emotions within a culture prone to disparage them (and their cognitive import).
More specifically, cognitive theories strive to elaborate how the arts provide us with valuable information about the world and the possibilities it affords. Such theories often stress an interventionist model of knowledge (akin to Dewey’s understanding of the processes of inquiry that yield knowledge). That is, the acts associated with producing knowledge transform the world rather than simply reflecting it. Knowledge is gathered not through passive reception but through motivated interaction. Aesthetic practice is involved in that kind of active manipulation of materials offered by the world, thus exploring the world’s affordances. Discursive aesthetic objects (literature, jokes, myths) manipulate symbols in ways that alter our understandings of situations, events, people, and values. Such understandings can be parsed as “cognitive” when they underwrite actions that prove efficacious in moving from the present into a future that has been pre-figured as possible on the basis of those understandings.
Nick’s question about the status of Dewey’s concept of experience—and the preference for the term “practice” in writers like Latour—makes me feel like I have fallen into a deep well. I will try to talk about “practice” and what that concept entails in future posts. For now, I just want to consider the critique of experience. I will start out with Joan Scott’s extremely influential 1991 essay “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991) and then move on to Richard Rorty’s explicit critique of Dewey’s reliance on experience (in the essay “Dewey’s Metaphysics” in Consequences of Pragmatism [University of Minnesota Press, 1982: 72-89).
Here’s a long passage from Scott that lays out her argument (note her reliance on the term “practice” in making her case):
Michel de Certeau’s description is apt. “Historical discourse,” he writes, “gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organizes it.”
When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience,” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed–what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation–as a foundation on which analysis is based–that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference. By remaining within the epistemological frame of orthodox history, these studies lose the possibility of examining those assumptions and practices that excluded considerations of difference in the first place. They take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference. They locate resistance outside its discursive construction and reify agency as an inherent attribute of individuals, thus decontextualizing it.
When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured–about language (or discourse) and history–are left aside. The evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.
To put it another way, the evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems–those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves and those that rest on notions of a natural or established opposition between, say, sexual practices and social conventions, between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Histories that document the “hidden” world of homosexuality, for example, show the impact [of] silence and repression on the lives of those affected by it and bring [to] light the history of their suppression and exploitation. But the project making experience visible precludes critical examination of the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation (homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman, black/white as fixed immutable identities), its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate, and of its notions of subjects, origin, and cause.
Homosexual practices are seen as the result of desire, conceived as a natural force operating outside or in opposition to social regulation. In these stories homosexuality is presented as a repressed desire (experience denied), made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced by a “society” that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal practice. Because this kind (homosexual) desire cannot ultimately be repressed–because experience is there–it invents institutions to accommodate itself. These institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately overcomes repression. Resistance and agency are presented as driven by uncontainable desire; emancipation is a teleological story in which desire ultimately overcomes social control and becomes visible. History is a chronology that makes experience visible, but in which categories appear as nonetheless ahistorical: desire, homosexuality, heterosexuality, femininity, masculinity, sex, and even sexual practices become so many fixed entities being played out over time, but not themselves historicized. Presenting the story in this way excludes, or at least understates, the historically variable interrelationship between the meanings “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” the constitutive force each has for the other, and the contested and changing nature of the terrain that they simultaneously occupy. (pages 777-778.)
Scott’s position is clear enough. Inspired by Foucault’s notion of “discursive power,” she is saying that there is no innocent experience. Rather, what we experience is shaped by the categories through which we process and understand what happens to us, what we see, and whom/what we encounter. Furthermore, the experiencing self has also been shaped by the culture/society of which it is a member. A consequential analysis of an historical scene must take those shaping processes into account, must make evident that that scene is historical through and through, the contingent product of a construction that could have been otherwise.
Rorty’s critique of Dewey takes the same path. “Experience” in Dewey is a metaphysical term—and belies Dewey’s more productive efforts to escape metaphysics altogether. For Scott, experience “naturalizes” that which should be understood as historical and constructed. Rorty makes much the same move. He opens the essay by quoting, approvingly, a late letter from Dewey to Bentley in which Dewey says he is thinking of a writing a new edition of Experience and Nature. This time around, Dewey will “change the title as well as the subject matter . . . to Nature and Culture. I was dumb not to have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written. I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean” (quoted in Rorty, 72).
For Rorty, it’s a choice between Kant and Hegel. Rorty sees Dewey as accepting the break with Humean empiricism which recognizes “that intuitions without concepts [are] blind and that no data [are] ever ‘raw’”(83). Once accepting that basic fact, the Kantian sees the concepts as universal, shared by all rational creatures, while the Hegelian sees the concepts as historically and culturally relative all the way down. Rorty writes: “By being ‘Hegelian’ I mean here treating the cultural developments which Kant thought it was the task of philosophy to preserve and protect as simply temporary stopping-places for the World Spirit” (85) Dewey, Rorty tells us, “agrees with Hegel that the starting point of philosophic thought is bound to be the dialectical situation in which one finds oneself caught in one’s own historical period—the problems of the men of one’s time” (81).
In his inimitable fashion, Rorty offers us a pocket-sized definition of metaphysics, utilizing a term from Dewey’s Experience and Nature. Dewey’s metaphysics aim to designate “the generic traits of experience.” For Nick and me, Dewey’s metaphysics are most fully and fruitfully present in his interactionist account of human being-in-the-world. It is that account, complete with its notion of “funded experience,” its unsettling of subject/object and other dualisms, and its dynamic picture of the ongoing production of identities, meanings, and novelty that we find attractive and see as adopted by Latour (and, presumably, Stengers, whose work I don’t know, but which Nick admires greatly).
Rorty is unimpressed. “What Kant had called ‘the constitution of the empirical world by synthesis of intuitions under concepts,’ Dewey wanted to call ‘interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake.’ But he wanted this harmless-sounding naturalistic phrase to have the same generality, and to accomplish the same epistemological feats, which Kant’s talk of the ‘constitution of objects’ had performed. He wanted phrases like ‘transactions with the environment’ and ‘adaptation to conditions’ to be simultaneously naturalistic and transcendental—to be common-sense remarks about human perception and knowledge viewed as the psychologist views it and also to be expressions of ‘generic traits of existence.’ So he blew up notions like ‘transaction’ and ‘situation’ until they sounded as mysterious as ‘prime matter’ or ‘thing-in-itself” (84).
It is the easiest thing in the world—and so is done constantly—to say Rorty himself cannot escape transcendental or metaphysical claims. After all, to say all thinking starts from the historical position in which one finds oneself is to identify a generic trait. But such a critique of Rorty misses the point—and would miss his very significant difference from Joan Scott. Scott wants to replace one kind of historical claim—the kind that relies on the evidence of experience—with another kind of claim—one that analyzes what enables (serves as the transcendental conditions of) experience. She is looking for a more accurate or more adequate way of understanding discursive, ideological forces and the way they construct how humans constitute and are constituted by history. Rorty finds that enterprise just another way of remaining trapped within the wrong-headed set of metaphysical and epistemological questions that philosophy has obsessed over since Descartes. Rorty thinks we should just walk away from that game.
Why? What’s wrong with that game? Rorty has a complicated, but coherent (if not utterly convincing) answer to that question.
That answer hinges on what I am fond of calling “transcendental blackmail.” In most every case, the metaphysician is trying to sell his audience on something. The tactic used is to get that audience to accept a seemingly neutral and irrefutable (and almost invariably universalistic) description of the human condition (“the generic facts of human existence”). Once the writer thinks he has established that irrefutable fact, its consequences are unfolded. I followed this strategy in my liberalism book. I tried to begin with the most uncontroversial claims and then lead the reader down the primrose path to liberalism by showing that, if they bought in to the foundational claims, then they, as a matter of logic and consistency, should accept positions that didn’t seem as self-evident and attractive to them at first blush. Thus, Scott’s critique of experience attempts to establish its constructed nature and is meant, eventually, to serve to get her reader to question established powers and the categories that serve that power’s ends.
Rorty, first of all, hates any kind of blackmail, any strategy for establishing an authority that deems itself irrefutable. Everything is up for question in his preferred version of liberalism, just as everything could be constituted differently in a different historical period or culture. There are no transcendentals, just historical contingencies.
Rorty would like that last sentence to be true. But often recognizes that it is not. His talk about “common-sense naturalism” in the passage I quoted above is a nod to that recognition. Let’s be concrete about this. Here is a universalized, metaphysical statement of a generic fact of human experience: All humans die. Rorty would not deny that statement. What he denies is that it has any necessary consequences beyond the brute fact of death. How to face death, think about it, avoid or embrace it, respond to the death of others, etc. are all underdetermined by the brute fact. We know that various cultures have established an incredibly wide range of practices in the face of the brute fact.
Thus, for Rorty, all humans die is a common-sense platitude that has no straight-forward or inevitable consequence for human beliefs, values, or behavior. I think this position—while tied to Rorty’s resolute anti-authoritarianism—is also linked to his positivist origins. Rorty maintains a strict fact/value dichotomy. Facts are value-neutral. How we understand and interpret them is radically disconnected from their existence. In his metaphysics, Rorty tells us, “Dewey betrayed precisely the insight . . . that nothing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies by which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge. . . . [W]hat Green and Hegel had seen, and Dewey himself saw perfectly well except when he was sidetracked into doing ‘metaphysics,’ was that we can eliminate epistemological problems by eliminating the assumption that justifications must rest on something other than social practices and human needs” (81-82). What Rorty says about epistemology here is fully consistent with his position on value as articulated in other works. Our commitments in terms of value rest on “social practices” and what we (and/or our society) understands to be “human needs” and not on any facts that transcend (or dictate) a humanly produced vocabulary. [Note that Rorty’s quick acknowledgement of “causal antecedents” of some statements belies the idea that he is an anti-realist. He is perfectly willing to say that the statement, “all humans die,” is motivated—or caused—by the encounter with death. He is not denying the fact’s existence, just its consequences, while he also—as I am about to discuss—does not think that the elaborate gymnastics of modern philosophy’s epistemologies do anything at all to either confirm or unsettle one’s beliefs about facts. Philosophic metaphysics and epistemology are unproductive games.]
An unproductive game because metaphysics has no consequences—a position taken up aggressively by Knapp and Michaels in their essay “Against Theory” and in numerous works by Stanley Fish. Describe the facts of existence—and nothing necessarily follows. Scott’s essay seems to belie that conclusion. Surely, the practitioners of historical studies will proceed differently if convinced by her case that an appeal to experience is not sufficient. I think that the pragmatist response (certainly it would be William James’s position and probably Rorty’s and Fish’s) is that my last sentence puts the cart before the horse. What comes first is the commitment to a certain set of values—and then the theoretical (or transcendental) claim is constructed as a buttress for that commitment. Certainly that was how my liberalism book was germinated. Rawls’ Theory of Justice offers a more grandiose and even comical case. The painstaking elaboration of his Rube Goldberg-like argument is clearly motivated by where he wants to end up.
Rorty certainly insisted that his philosophical commitments and arguments had no political consequences. His liberalism was not a product of—or even connected in any way—to his pragmatism. He described himself as mostly in tune with Habermas’ and Rawls’ versions of liberalism (characterized by equality, open unimpeded discussion/deliberation, and hostility to concentrations of power) while disagreeing with their conviction that liberalism required theoretical or transcendental underpinnings. The first-order commitments to certain values—commitments generated by upbringing, by sensibility/temperament, social practices, and comparisons among varied ways of living on display in the word and in the historical record—were more than sufficient for taking a stand.
Philosophers are no different from any one else in trying to persuade others to adopt a particular stand—while stories, images, emotional appeals, and displayed loyalties are very likely much more effective tools of persuasion than philosophical argument. “[P]hilsophers’ criticism of culture are not more ‘scientific,’ more ‘fundamental,’ or more ‘deep’ than those of labor leaders, literary critics, retired statesmen or sculptors” (87). Philosophers just start out by working on a different set or materials—“the history of philosophy and the contemporary effects of those ideas called ‘philosophic’ upon the rest of the culture—the remains of past attempts to describe the ‘generic traits of existences’” (87). And philosophers use different rhetorical means to persuade—means that are presumably effective for some people, that minority (?) which likes (prefers?) their commitments to be underwritten by a certain kind of argumentation instead of only by stories, images etc. Rorty is guilty of unjustified metaphysical generalization when he claims (as he often does) that stories are always more effective than arguments.
I find this radical levelling—both of the hierarchy of thinkers and of planes of existence (no deep undergirding truth about our daily round)—attractive. I find it harder to credit that understanding being-in-the-world and action-in-the-world in this way has no consequences. Maybe adopting a particular attitude is not ratified by some set of metaphysical facts. But the description itself is fruitful. How we understand the facts influences our reaction/adaptation to them. [That’s simply straight-forward Peircean pragmatism.] Of course, it is not clear that Rorty would deny that. He thinks the vocabulary we choose to work in does have consequences. Those vocabularies (and the activities/practices that accompany them) just need to be recognized as ways of “adapting and coping rather than copying” (86). Still, the adapting must be to something—like the COVID 19 virus. Coping requires, it would seem at least in some cases, accurate modeling.
To conclude—and to set up the next posts on practice—it seems clear that the critique of experience is a resistance to the way the term takes as self-evident the naturalistic placement of an experiencing self in an environment. The preference for the term “practice” is meant to introduce the social influences (determinants would be, for me but not I suspect for Scott, too strong a term) that shape what any individual might experience or might articulate as her experience. Certainly, with his notion of “funded” experience, Dewey is not utterly naïve about the ways that experience has social and historical dimensions. But the term “practices” tries (as I will discuss in the next posts) to put much more flesh on this idea of the ways in which experience is embedded within social settings that have prevailing norms, preferred ways of “going on,” and pre-established goals/ends.