Thursday, May 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

But it was a formative experience.
Berube's writing and perspective seems fairly authentic (to use an overused term), and he's correct Heideggerian ontology has little or nothing to do with the pragmatism-lite of corporate-liberal Rorty. (Rorty usually attempted to include about anyone vaguely anti-realist into his philosophastical smorgasbord--so Darwin and Heidegger are sitting in Cafe Pragmo along with Dewey and James Joyce.... )

Alas Berube's regular commenters are another matter--sort of AIPAC.com (yet note the perspicacious and non-AIPACish comments by one..."Ezra Hound". Zut!).
Rorty gets Dewey and Peirce pretty wrong as well. There's a great book on this, Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism. It's one of the few books about philosophers I reread regularly. He goes after Putnam a lot as well.
I haven't read that much of Rorty--some from CIS, a rather long-winded Deweyesque essay on marxists.org and chunks of "The Linguistic Turn"--the Rortster basically just wrote the intro., and then included a bunch of language-related essays from the analytical greats....

Even a cursory perusal of Rorty's writing early and late will show that he had a problem with anything have to do with....Descartes, which I find slightly interesting. While the precise arguments of the Meditations--and the catholic overtones-- are rather quaint at this stage, Descartes was not exactly a parish priest or fundamentalist spouting dogma, was he.

A bright and ambitious non-pragmatist could probably write something on Rorty's near-obsession with Cartesian themes --personally I believe Rorty remained a Quinean reductionist (though of a liberal rather than nihilist sort), even when putting together his pragmatist feast. He dislikes the Cartesian methodological doubt, yet I suggest he really doesn't care for the rationalism, e.g. the idea that Mind exists in some sense (a view which Peirce certainly ascribed to, even if not a dualist). I don't think one has to agree with full-blown substance dualism...or even an immortal soul per se..to oppose the Rortster's pragmatism ala Quine and Darwin (and that's not to say Darwinism's wrong either, but it's not an all encompassing metaphysics).
In a certain way what unites a lot of movements - especially the Heideggerians and most of the pragmatists is a strong anti-Cartesian streak which more or less makes for a move towards externalism. I think a lot of the major positions opposed to much of traditional 20th century philosophy end up being the externalist assumption. (For instance I think that a lot of the so-called correlationalist critiques of Heideggarians reduce down to not understanding externalism)
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