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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Invidiousness and Parentheticals: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/31/10 at 02:57 PM

Obviously, this book is now nearly ten years old (perhaps I should have waited a few months so I could make this a decade-after assessment), but I just read it a couple of weeks ago and thought I’d offer some thoughts, especially since it’s been so well read.

One word crops up unexpectedly often in The Metaphysical Club: “invidious.” Well, it only turns up seven times (and two of those are actually “invidiousness"), but I sincerely doubt I (or you) have read many books, even of greater length, which use the word or its inflections more frequently.

This frequency should not, after some reflection, be all that surprising; one of the consistent themes of much writing about pragmatism—particularly the version we receive from Richard Rorty—is its impatience if not antipathy toward dualisms which smuggle preferences in under the cover of either nature or truth, a trick which makes for a pretty good definition of the word “invidious.” What Menand says of Dewey here goes for the most part for his readings of James, Peirce, and Holmes, as well as for the secondary characters like Chauncey Wright, James Marsh, Horace Kallen, Franz Boas, Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and (a little distortedly) Randolph Bourne:

The “Reflex Arc” paper is the essential expression of Dewey’s particular mode of intelligence. It is the strategy he followed in approaching every problem: expose a tacit hierarchy in the terms in which people conventionally think about it. We think that a response follows a stimulus; Dewey taught that there is a stimulus only because there is already a response. We think that first there are individuals and then there is society; Dewey taught that there is no such thing as an individual without society. We think we know in order to do; Dewey taught that doing is why there is knowing.

Dewey was not reversing the priority of the terms he identified in these analyses. Invidiousness was precisely what he wished always to avoid. In condemning (as he did) the elevation of thinking over doing as a reflection of class bias (Veblen would have said that philosophical speculation is a form of conspicuous consumption: it shows we can afford not to work with our hands), Dewey was not proposing to elevate doing over thinking instead. He was only applying the idea Addams was trying to explain to him when she said that antagonism is unreal: he was showing that ‘doing’ and ‘thinking,’ like ‘stimulus’ and ‘response,’ are just practical distinctions we make when tensions arise in the process of adjustment between the organism and its world. Later in his career, Dewey would criticize, in the same manner, the distinctions between mind and reality, means and ends, nature and culture. As Henry Steele Commager testified, a generation (or part of a generation, anyway) seems to have found Dewey’s manner of calmly and often rather colorlessly chewing through received ideas irresistible and indispensable.

What is striking about Menand’s writing in The Metaphysical Club (but which uncharacteristically does not come across in this passage) is the linearity and curtness of the vast majority of Menand’s sentences*; where there are semicolons or colons, they serve mainly to hold a thought just long enough for it to be completed or reinforced. Rarely are they used to extend a point onto adjacent ground or to make even the slightest of tangents. Parallelism or antithesis is also, as far as I can remember, if not infrequent, at least quite understated; strong oppositions are not Menand’s choice for pursuing his narrative. (Even the treatment on Agassiz, who is the closest thing we may have here to a villain, is directed more to showing how William James’s reaction to the fights between Agassiz and the Darwinians was crucial in pointing him toward his notion of pluralism {143}.) Strong oppositions are inevitably always too close to “invidious distinctions.”

The other really notable stylistic trait of the book is its huge number of parenthetical comments, each one basically like the parentheses about Veblen above: basically self-contained, of small pertinence to the sentence off of which it is hanging, usually either recapitulating a point made earlier or tossing in a value-added factoid. Effectively, they’re non-citational footnotes—not meant to direct the reader to a particular source for further research or to acknowledge the origin of the information or quote, just meant to use up all the scraps of information Menand gathered. One of my favorites is this: “(James’s assignment seems to have been to investigate the effects of a particular brand of baking powder on the kidneys—in other words, self-urinalysis. After three weeks, he asked [Charles William] Eliot to assign the experiment to someone else. It was the beginning of a lifelong aversion to laboratory work.)”

The impulse behind this habit probably is a combination of wanting to entertain and also not to waste any research; certainly not bad impulses, and these little nuggets rarely seriously distract, but these ephemera also do the job of making the principal characters of the book a good deal weirder, but in a rather superficial manner. The “lifelong aversion to laboratory work” is kind of funny when one thinks of it as the result of James taking the piss out of himself, but it also truncates a better (and necessary) discussion of James’s relation to the scientific method or to fieldwork. Menand does broach these subjects (particularly in the chapter titled “Brazil") but all too often he abbreviates or curtails such topics with these pat parentheticals. Perhaps this is in fact a method or a principle: maybe Menand means to say that our more immediate reactions like this one are the better places to look for our habits, inclinations, and dispositions, and that the trail of our more thoughtfully considered rationales and philosophies are basically just a forest of garnishes blocking our view of this slenderer meat, to mix metaphors rather carelessly. I actually wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that—Menand does a very creditable (but not overwhelming) amount of source work—but there is a sense in which these parenthetical asides assume a surprisingly foundational role in building the narrative.

* My friend Craig Fehrman pointed out to me before I read The Metaphysical Club how uncannily short Menand is able to keep so many of his sentences. As Craig pointed out, this curtness is in excess of even the relative directness of his New Yorker essays or his other work. It’s my feeling that it is precisely the effort to avoid “invidious distinctions” that Menand is aiming at with these very linear sentences.


The connection between “invidious” and Rorty may be more direct than just its applicability to some targets of pragmatists in general and Rorty in particular. I just finished “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” in which Rorty finds a somewhat irritatingly large number of things “invidious”. (I of course didn’t count but would guess at least seven). Perhaps Menand read that book and concluded that frequent injection of the word is a requirement for writing credibly about pragmatism.

By on 08/31/10 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good call--according to Google Books, there are also seven instances!
It’s also, to a lesser extent, a Dewey thing; I found two in Dewey’s Art as Experience, two in Experience and Nature, two in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, and well, it’s certainly not an uncommon word for him, although probably not too noticeable unless one is looking for it.

By Andrew Seal on 09/01/10 at 12:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is interesting, but not particularly insightful. And to suggest that ‘invidious’ is a Dewey thing, evidenced by a few instances of his use of the term out of the thousands upon thousands of pages that the man published, is absurd. But this is in keeping with Menand’s approach to philosophy. There is little in any of Menand’s writings that would suggest that he understands the philosophy he writes so tersely about. Moreover, Rorty’s ‘invidious’ use of the phrase “we Pragmatists” does not make him a pragmatist. Both of these men have traded the focused study of ‘relatedness’ which lies at the core of Pragmatism, for the candy floss of ‘relativism’. Some one who does understand Pragmatism, and its import to logic, is Susan Haack. Her take on Menand is revealing:


But back to the point of this post, a distinction is invidious if making it causes harm, i.e., the supposed mind/body problem that has beguiled philosophy for centuries ... In Pragmatic Ontology, there is no such problem as the two are aspects of a single event, a living organism minding its environment. This is a major point of Dewey’s Reflex Arc, and can easily be discerned in the pluralism of James, the ontogenetic semiotics of Peirce, the psychozoology of Wright, etcetera. My advice for anyone interested in this era is to read Joseph Brent or Robert Richardson - or the original essays of James Peirce, et. al, most of which are online. And if you are interested in the ongoing development of Pragmatism, then read Haack, or Sandra Rosenthal, or Charlene Haddock Seigfried, or some other of the many thinkers working the field today. Menand, by contrast, is a journalist. Whatever his skill as a writer, it is overshadowed by his lack of comprehension of his subject matter.

By on 09/01/10 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nothing to add. But I want “Andrew Seal does stylistic close-readings of critical texts” to be a continuing series.

By Aaron Bady on 09/01/10 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right--it was too much to call it a “Dewey thing"--I just got excited. But really, I wasn’t trying to say that “invidious” was a pet word of Dewey’s, just that it’s present across a number of his works, and if you’re primed for it (as someone, like Menand or like me, who is coming to Dewey through Rorty might be), you might notice those instances of the word. Sorry if that doesn’t meet the burden of insightfulness for you.

I understand the objections to what Harold Bloom would no doubt call Rorty’s “strong misreadings” of James and Dewey. And Haack is absolutely right that he writes Peirce out of the picture largely because he doesn’t like him. Even more, I find Rorty’s belief that he can herd other philosophers (Davidson, Quine, Putnam) into his neo-pragmatist camp simply by complimenting them pretty hilarious.

But I also find Haack’s purist version of “classical pragmatism” rather ironically contrary to pragmatism’s spirit. Policing for orthodoxy in the manner that this review demonstrates is exactly the kind of attitude that has made Rorty’s version of pragmatism attractive to many; whatever else you can say about his treatment of his sources, you never get the feeling that his idea of an insult is “you’re just a vulgarization of X!”

I also want to say that I love Haack’s throwaway allusion to Mussolini in that review--talk about “classical” New Criterion technique--trying to convince readers that if you scratch a “relativist” he’ll bleed fascism is basically their raison d’être.

By Andrew Seal on 09/01/10 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I rank properly labeling people very low on a list of things worth my time. Also ranked very low is reading assessments of a prolific and widely - though far from universally - respected writer based on abbreviated out-of-context quotes. True, Rorty set himself up for that by apparently enjoying saying somewhat shocking things; but some of those considered most outlandish - eg, “truth is what your peers let you get away with” - are shorthand for well-argued (not to say necessarily correct) positions. But one assumes that knowledgeable people of integrity will take that into account when critiquing his actual positions. I know that assumption was proven wrong by Simon Blackburn in “Truth: A Guide” and suspect the same based on the “he said-he said” comparison with Peirce in Prof Haack’s review of Menand’s book. Any time a discussion of Rorty’s positions seems structured so as to intentionally make him appear foolish, one has to wonder; even his most severe critics apparently respect his intellect.

Those who are absolutists won’t like Rorty and will label him a relativist (pejorative sense); those who aren’t and for whom his positions resonate may - if they are honest - acquiesce to that label, though in a non-pejorative sense. I infer from some phrases in the review that Prof Haack is among the former, and in any event doesn’t like what Rorty says, that he high-jacked her label, or both. I am the among the latter, and having no vested interest in being able to correctly sort philosophers into “-ism” boxes, couldn’t care less which one Rorty - or anyone else - should go in. Just tell me where his arguments go wrong.

Andrew: Could you elaborate “herding ... by complimenting” a bit? I am aware of Rorty’s (mis?)use of ideas from Davidson and Quine, but thinking someone “got it right” and saying so, and your phrase are clearly quite different things. And if he meant his response to Putnam in “Rorty and His Critics” to be complimentary, he clearly missed a lesson or two in “Sucking-up 101”.

Tnx - Charles

By on 09/01/10 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The expression was a little extreme and meant to be humorous. What I meant, though, was something like the quote Haack pulled about Davidson: “it suits my purposes to define pragmatism as the attempt to do something Davidson approves of.”

(After doing a little digging, I actually found that this quote comes from a {still?} unpublished typescript, and Haack’s used it more than once--she refers to it in Philosophy and Literature 20.2, which is where I saw the citation. Not that there’s anything wrong with using unpublished material, but I think the provenance adds a little to your comments about how selective Haack is being in order to undermine Rorty.)

A better example of what I mean would be something like the article “Putnam and the Relativist Menace” (Journal of Philosophy 90.9 {Sept. 1993}). Rorty doesn’t really kiss up to Putnam (at least not compared to in the opening paragraph of this), but what he does is seek to minimize the differences between Putnam and himself to the extent that it begins to seem a little like co-optation. He’s not so much resolving the sticking points as trying to show that if Putnam understood Rorty correctly, they’d be practically of the same mind. This is a little comical when the person on the other end of this mind-meld is clearly intent on continuing to disagree with Rorty.

On the other hand, for the reason you bring up that many people tend to take some of Rorty’s more outrageous statements as the entirety of his thought and ignore anything more carefully argued, Rorty often has a good point when he’s trying to show that there is more common ground between him and his interlocutor than the other person (or the reader) may realize. I think Rorty tends to overplay this common ground in places like the aforementioned essay, but he’s not entirely wrong to try to do it.

By Andrew Seal on 09/01/10 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew - I googled the “Davidson approves” quote and got only four hits - all Haack. So, at least in that instance it appears that “quote mining” is a legitimate charge.

Yes, Putnam’s essay in “R and his Critics” leaves no doubt that circa 2000 they remained seriously divergent. And R’s response suggests resignation to that “reality” (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Thanks for your helpful reply - C

By on 09/02/10 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew, While I cannot disagree with your assessment of the ‘classical’ New Criterion style, I think you are missing Haack’s point about both Rorty and classical Pragmatism - the later term references a historical approach, referring to that specific set of ideations and the immediate milieu which birthed it, that unites James, Peirce, Wright, Holmes, Green, et. al. Classical Pragmatism was given new life by Dewey, Putnam, Quine, et. al - and depending on how tightly one defines things, this list may include some folks who use some Pragmatic argumentation, but reject some other aspect of it - Santayana, Royce, Lovejoy, et. al. The contemporary rock-stars <sic> of the field include Haack, but also Margolis and many others.  For all his skill, Rorty belongs in none of these camps. He claimed Pragmatism, he did not practice it. Likewise, his dismissal of Peirce was more than merely personal - he clearly did not understand the argumentation of the principle founder of the philosophy.
For myself, I find Rorty evocative, but not particularly useful, but my training and occupation is philosophy of science, not literary theory. And for all I enjoyed Haack’s take down of Menand for his gross misrepresentation of Pragmatism, I am not one of those fools who dismisses all fields but my own ... There is a point to Rorty straddling his several stools, and I consider myself unqualified to speak to much of his work, but in terms of Pragmatism, the only real question is not whether, but how badly he misunderstood it.
And with all respect, to argue that the author of Deviant Logic and Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate is “policing for orthodoxy” only shows that you haven’t read her (beyond this review).  The woman cannot be described as an absolutist in any coherent sense of the term. Seriously, it’s like pretending liberals want the imposition of sharia law…
I read this review of Menand as contemptuous of Menand, not necessarily of Rorty. While it is clear (here and throughout her technical work) that she strongly disagrees with Rorty, she is decrying the vapidity of Menand’s shallow use of (and identification with) so-called Rortyism, rather than Rorty himself. She argues not that Rorty is vulgar, but that Menand has produced a vulgar Rortyism.
And Charles, to call this a case of he-said, she-said, is absurd. There is an actual world, which “is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not.” This naturalism is as important to Peirce’s Pragmatism as it is to Quine’s epistemology. If something looks like ‘hesaidshesaid’, it usually means that you don’t know enough about the situation to make a call. The thing to do in this situation is, if possible, refrain from passing judgement until you find out more.
Moreover, while you may ‘like’ (or, prefer the argumentation) of Rorty over Peirce, the fact remains that Peirce and James (not Haack) ‘labelled’ Pragmatism. These men and their entire cohort gave shape to the philosophy that goes by that term. It is a fact that Haack works within this tradition, and Rorty did not. (I know this is a naked assertion, but my post is long enough already) With all this said, I have no problem whatsoever with Rorty’s way of doing philosophy, I have less problem with his twinning together of philosophy and comp lit, and even less with his outlandish commentary - these all make for an interesting approach. But still, he simply isn’t particularly useful to me (and as Wright argued, “a theory which is utilized receives the highest possible certificate of truth"). But again, I’m not working the same field: if he is useful to you, then have at it Hoss! Absolutes of all kinds are dismissed by Pragmatism, including the pretense that Pragmatism is an absolute.
But I do have problems with Rorty’s claim on the whole of Pragmatism, all the more so because his approach had so little to do with Pragmatism itself. And, with Haack, I have contempt for Menand’s work in the field. The Metaphysical Club is a good read, but gross revisionism all the same.

By on 09/02/10 at 09:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quickly (because I want to get back to this later--I’m really enjoying this discussion), you’re right, I haven’t read Haack’s books, and it sounds like I should. That review, though, even if it is unrepresentative of her larger perspective on the history of pragmatism, does seem more interested in calling people names and enforcing credentials than it does in engaging with why Rorty might choose to write in the name of pragmatism, or why he chose Dewey and James as his models (and why Menand chose the selections he did for the anthology). I feel like that would have been a helpful review; if she had brought to bear her knowledge of the history of pragmatism to evaluate why it is useful as a banner to Rorty and Menand at this point, I think that would have been a stunning review, while also advancing her argument for why their claim to the name is spurious or disingenuous. This business of dismissing things as vulgarizations helps no one *but* The New Criterion.

By Andrew Seal on 09/02/10 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew, also quickly because it’s a busy evening, my time: it can be no doubt that reading that review with a broad background in the relevant history and texts seriously alters the experience. A better introduction to Haack’s work, can be found at: http://www.as.miami.edu/phi/haack/SYNECHIS.pdf
And my apologies for that opening snark in my first post, it’s an annoying habit ...

By on 09/02/10 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"to call this a case of he-said, she-said, is absurd.”

Perhaps it would be, but I didn’t. I was referring only to the 4th paragraph that begins “Peirce urged ...”. “He said-he said” - which is what I actually wrote - seems a quite accurate description.

OTOH, to imply that the position of someone who’s reputation was made by an influential critique of one of the major modern philosophical currents is captured by the quote “philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing” - now that is absurd.

By on 09/02/10 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello again Andrew; to respond to your last comment (because I am also enjoying this discussion): whatever the editorial principles of The New Criterion, and whatever benefit they seek to gain from it (and I don’t know enough about the outfit to comment on it), the business of dismissing things as vulgar is sometimes both necessary, and correct.
Vulgarity can be defined as a lack of refinement or an absurdly undeveloped simplicity, as well as morally crude or unregenerate. To call ‘Rortyism’ a vulgar Pragmatism, and Menand a ‘vulgar Rortyism’ is, IMHO, exactly correct.
Take my field, phl sci: a person can only argue the incoherence of intelligent design, as a method (practice) and theory (philosophy) of science, so many times before simply calling ID a vulgarization of science. The same goes for climate change denial and other flat-earth notions of how science functions. The same goes for Rorty’s claims on Pragmatism, and it goes double for Menand’s. I appreciate Haack’s sneering tone in this review in much the same way that I appreciate, for example, PZ Myers’ tone - all more so because she is generally a congenial writer (PZ’s rhetoric is always at 11, as it were, and if nothing else, that just gets tiring).
While your critique has its points - and I cannot disagree with your whatif’ scenarios concerning Haack’s review (such an essay would be welcome), but I think you underestimate the history of the contention, and it is this history that informs this review.
Asking why Rorty wrote in the name of Pragmatism and taking any answer he might give as justification for his claim, would be like asking an IDiot why she or he does ‘creation biology’. Or perhaps it is like asking a flat-earther why they believe what they do. The answer only speaks to their mental processes, because the claim itself is invalid.
And claiming that some such claim is invalid becomes an argument from authority if the actual world is not taken into account. The teacher who argues that the earth is generally round and (irrespective of your agreement) not flat, is not arguing from authority, but from reality. ID proponents can claim all they want, both empirical evidence and theoretical coherence prove them wrong at every turn.  It is not a vulgarization to speak of them either as fools, or as scam artists feeding on fools; it is reality. Likewise, Haack is not ‘enforcing credentials’ but demanding that attention be paid to reality. The fact that she does so in a manner that is disrespectful to people making absurd claims on her field of specialization only shows that she has a backbone, and is unafraid to use it.
For that matter, the fact that Rorty chose Dewey and James as his models doesn’t change the fact that (in addition to dismissing Peirce) he misread them both.
Moreover, I argue that she did address the question of why Menand choose the selections he did for his anthology: e.g.

“His purpose is to promote a Rortyesque neo-pragmatism.
Menand’s “pragmatism” is “an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions”; the idea that “what people believe to be true is just what they think it is good to believe to be true”; that “the whole force of a philosophical account of anything … lies in the advertised [sic] consequences of accepting it”; that “if we do what is right, the metaphysics will take care of themselves.” Rortyism is vulgar pragmatism; this is vulgar Rortyism.”

The rest of the article defends this point. But it may well be that much of her tone comes from a considered opinion that the question a waste of time. If you will forgive a personal anecdote, I will explain.
My university (not in the states) has a Department of English and American Studies, where Peirce is taught not at all, James earns a bare mention, Dewey is treated as a genial old fuddy, and the students generally spend their time using Foucault to critique Twain. I have asked the dept chair about this state of affairs numerous times, the answer I get is always a lecture on the importance of Foucault. I try saying that I am not arguing against the importance of Foucault in his field, but for the importance of Peirce, et. al. in any program of American Studies, and I get another lecture about Foucault. After a few years, I have given up asking, and now I only snark. Ask me to write a review of someone using Foucault to critique Twain, and it would probably come out sounding something like Haack’s review of Menand.
Not that this would invalidate my considered opinion that any department of American Studies that simply ignores Peirce is failing its students, or that, in the same manner, any ‘Pragmatism’ that simply ignores Peirce is likewise problematic.

By on 09/03/10 at 08:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Charles - I re-read that fourth paragraph, and cannot fathom why you would claim that Haack presumes that all of Rorty is summed up in that one phrase “philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing"- surely you noticed that this was not the only time she quoted Rorty ... And surely you are not denying her the right to quote Rorty in drawing a contrast between Rorty and Peirce. And surely you cannot be claiming that Peirce’s definitions of Pragmatism have no standing in a conversation about Pragmatism, or that the contrast between him and Rorty is irrelevant to a discussion of the definitions of Pragmatism…
But you are correct on one thing: you wrote ‘he said he said’ and not ‘he said she said’, but otherwise I fail to see your point.

By on 09/03/10 at 08:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, ostdiek, let’s compare the first “he said-he said” in that paragraph (of the four I count in the whole essay, three are there. I previously addressed the last, so this will make it half):

“Peirce urged that philosophy be undertaken ... to discover the truth—which ‘is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not.’”

I have no idea whether that out-of-context quote fairly represents Peirce, but in any event it expresses a pretty conventional and respectable position. But in order to compare that position to Rorty’s, let’s parse the quote a bit.

I think it important to distinguish three questions: whether “truth” - in the sense of “the way things really are” - exists (what I take to be the meaning of “truth - which ‘is SO … whether you or I or anybody thinks it is so or not’ “); if it does, whether it is discoverable; and whether philosophy should have it’s discovery as a goal. I infer that Peirce thought the answer to all three is “yes”.

My understanding is that by “objective truth” Rorty also meant something like “the way things really are” but thought the answer to the second question is “no” (his answer may have become more nuanced in his later years) - in which case the answer to the first is unknowable and the answer to the third is necessarily “no” - but for any discipline, not just philosophy. With that understanding, his “not hav[ing] much use for notions like … ‘objective truth’” is consistent, though one obviously can disagree with any or all of his three answers.

But that position is not the same as saying that the quest for more knowledge should cease. I understand Rorty to be arguing that viewing that quest as having “objective truth” as an ultimate goal has some unfortunate consequences which can be avoided by instead viewing it as seeking new and hopefully better (in the sense of more useful in achieving one’s immediate objectives) “vocabularies”. That view can perhaps be seen as more-or-less consistent with what Peirce might have meant by “chance will remain ‘until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational and symmetrical system in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future” (from the Haack paper you suggested as a more palatable intro to her work - which it definitely is! Thanks.) Except I suspect that Rorty would have questioned the convergence implicit in Peirce’s quote; he argued against the hopeless quest for a “final vocabulary”, the one supposedly “spoken” by nature.

Now, I’m an amateur (but serious) novice in all this stuff, so I may have this totally wrong. But in any event, here’s the Rorty quote Haack juxtaposes with the Peirce quote:

“to call a statement true ‘is just to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.’”

Not only is this not a fair presentation of Rorty’s position on truth, it isn’t a presentation of it at all. It’s a folksy reference to Ramsey’s ladder (the pointless cascading of redundancies: “p”, “p” is true, it’s a fact that “p” is true, etc - or my favorite from college days: I’m absolutely certain “p” is probably true!). Similarly, the infamous “truth is what your peers let you get away with” is a pithy summary of the take away from Sellars’ “Empiricism and Phil of Mind” - which Blackburn surely knows, notwithstanding his playing dumb and interpreting the quote in a way intended to make it seem ridiculous. In the review, Haack appears to be engaged in a similar game. And that is my point. (See also comment 3 on her essay.)

By on 09/03/10 at 05:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t really agree with the validity of that analogy. Firstly, I don’t think the problem with ID or climate change deniers or flat earthers is that they lack refinement or that their ideas are simple or undeveloped; some conspiracy theories are remarkably elaborate and intricate, but that hardly makes them any more valid or reasonable or any less harmful.

Secondly, I don’t think that IDers’ or flat earthers’ claims to being scientific have a very different force and truly different effects than Rorty’s adoption of the name pragmatist or neo-pragmatist because the forms of authority that they are claiming function very differently. Claiming the mantle of Dewey at this point does not produce the same effects in society as claiming to be doing real science, nor did it in 1979 or at any time between now and then. There’s a very good review of Metaphysical Club by Bruce Kuklick in the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (Vol. 37.4 Fall 2001) which argues that Menand’s (and to some extent Rorty’s) narrative about pragmatism going dormant all through the Cold War is inaccurate, but I think it is fair to say that Rorty spent a lot more time convincing people that Dewey was worth reading again than he did skating by on borrowed authority. Perhaps you’ll disagree with that, though.

Thirdly, I don’t see much resemblance between the “reality” of a philosophical text (or rather a set of texts which are never going to be entirely internally consistent) and the reality of accumulated years of empirical observations and multiple independent confirmations of, say, the roundness of the earth and the operation of natural selection.

By Andrew Seal on 09/03/10 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I take Ostdiek as saying that any form of neo-pragmatism like Rorty’s that doesn’t have a component of epistemological realism to it isn’t worthy of the name--is not pragmatism, or has traduced ‘classical’ pragmatism.

Well--I can understand why Rorty wanted to call himself some form of pragmatist. There are many lines of inheritance from Dewey and William James to Rorty.

Andrew Seal’s first point was that a lot of the argumentative work in Menand’s book seemed to be carried on by anecdotal interjections. This is something I’ve noticed in two ‘group biolgraphies’ I’ve read recently, Jenny Uglow’s _Lunar Men_ and Richard Holmes’s _The Age of Wonder_: the rhetorical effect is something like saying, ‘pretty crazy guys’, to tie the philosophical interest of what the groups of thinkers and researchers at issue were developing to particular features of their cultural milieux. My shotgun reading of this style would be that it represent the peace that mass-market publishing makes with intellectual history done in a more history-of-ideas mode.

By on 09/05/10 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In reverse order, Farmer Jack: epistemological realism is only one stream of pragmatism (the definition of belief as the potential of action by a knowing actor, for example, is another), this does not preclude its place in pragmatic thought. Yes, there are many lines of inheritance from Dewey and James (pluralism is another of these many streams)- and Rorty may well have picked up on more of them than I give him credit. (I have already stated that I consider myself unqualified to speak to some aspects of Rorty’s work, I’ve read Mirror but little else, and I have no (serious) background in comp lit.) However, the “principle of Peirce” (Pragmatism, as James called it) is primarily an a posteriori methodology - which Peirce developed into a semiotic ontology complete with a sophisticated logic, while James turned it into what could (perhaps) best be described as a therapeutic approach to problem solving that functions across both social and individual scales. My personal favorite work by Dewey, Art as Experience, exemplifies this approach. And Dewey’s aesthetic pedagogy could easily inform a Rortyesque approach to comp lit (but again - I’m not well read in that field and not willing to make any claims on it). The differences between these three has much more to do with the intent behind their efforts, rather than their weltanschauung.  But while Dewey and James both built upon Peirce’s logic, Rorty seems to have ignored it completely. By contrast, Haack is first and foremost a logician. Her work falls well within Peirce’s ontological and epistemological approach and, like James and Dewey, can only be described as Pragmatic. For myself, I cannot see how Rorty (or Menand) can ignore Peirce the way they do and claim to speak for Pragmatism (let alone publish a reader on the subject). More, I argue that anyone ignorant of Peirce’s logic and semiotics, is likely to misread James, et.al., (not necessarily, just likely), and that much misunderstanding of Pragmatism stems from this very problem.

Next Andrew: I did not intend to write an analogy, but give an example. I agree with all three of the points you make above, but in drawing those comparisons, I only meant to explain the tone of Haack’s review, not postulate an equivalence. Haack is a logician, a pragmatist, and well versed in her field. Her criticism of Rorty is grounded in her study; it is not something she pulled out of her ass. She is not arguing from authority, nor is she policing for orthodoxy. That said, I do not always agree with her. To whit: I do not dismiss Rorty’s approach (while she seems more willing to do), only his claim on Pragmatism. But I do have big problems with Menand’s approach - not his contextualizing of philosophy within history and culture (this is both valid and well done) - but his presentation of the philosophy itself. (forgive me for not pulling out my copy of The Metaphysical Club and listing examples, I don’t want to offend Charles with any more hesaid hesaid - no, that’s a joke, the truth is that this is a long comment and it’s a busy start of a new semester, I’ll save it for another time...)

Charles - I really like your argumentation here, and I do not entirely disagree with your conclusion. Moreover, I think you are quite correct in your dissection of the ‘truth’ of the issue, however, you do mischaracterize Peirce’s position, which is not far removed from James’ argument that “truth happens to an idea”, truth has no ontological status - then again, to Peirce, nothing has ontological status except process itself, as seen in his cenopythagorean categories. The common claim that truth is what is, confuses being and truth. What is, is; a ‘truth’ is merely a functional (i.e. useful) depiction of the ongoing process, the interaction that is all that actually is. Here I generalize across several arguments. There are differences between James and Peirce on the issue, however, both agree with Wright in that the greatest possible certification of the ‘truth’ of a notion is its usefulness in the furthering of both knowing, and life itself.

But this discussion could easily take us far afield ... you make some really valid points (particularly on the convergence that Peirce longed for - which was more of a religious expression than anything else. I think that the panentheism that is Hartshorne’s rendering of Peirce captures this aspect of Peirce better than most - Hartshorne was no pragmatist, and did not call himself one, though he was highly influenced by Peirce’s ontology, and edited a number of collections of his manuscripts). At any rate, I don’t want to short-change your last post, but am really out of free time right now ... tonight or tomorrow I look forward to coming back to this - i look forward to both returning to the conversation, and your further contributions… cheers.

By on 09/06/10 at 07:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

ostdiek -

Thanks for the kind words.

In reply to Farmer Jack you suggested “belief as the potential of action by a knowing actor” as another “stream of pragmatism”. I have a particular interest in that general concept - who would you suggest as a good source for elaboration of it?

You are, of course, correct that my phrase “whether ... truth exists” was a mistake, which I noticed at the time. But I was too lazy to work out a better way of paraphrasing the Peirce quote - mea culpa. The phrase “truth happens to an idea” is an interesting description, one to which I can imagine Rorty might agree, depending on exactly what James had in mind by “happens to”. (In case you are interested, the more “nuanced” position on “truth” that I ascribed to Rorty in “his later years” is discussed in his response to the Ramberg essay in “Rorty and his Critics”.)

I was pleased to read “the “convergence Peirce longed for - which was more of a religious expression than anything else” since I thought I picked up a bit of a religious tone in some of Prof Haack’s descriptions of Peirce’s ideas in her essay.

I too look forward to further exchanges - although once we get off Rorty I’ll probably have little to contribute.

By on 09/07/10 at 01:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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