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Can we live without searching for ultimate truths? (The Return of Metaphysics)

Reading | Metaphysics

Man with lamp walking illuminating his path

It is second nature for human beings to look for ultimate truths and ground our lives on that search. But should we give up on ultimates altogether and, instead, live pragmatically on the basis of the best ‘literary story’ we can come up with? Dr. Danielsen Huckerby describes how philosopher Richard Rorty argued for just that. We sympathize with Rorty’s point of view since, as primates recently evolved on a tiny rock hurtling along infinite space, it is preposterous to imagine that we can unveil the ultimate truth of existence. However, we are skeptical that humans could ever sincerely give up on the search, or even that we should. The popularity of Rorty’s argument is growing in academia today because we live in a time when metaphysical materialism is proving to be untenable. But the failure of materialism does not mean a failure of metaphysics in general; assuming that it does represents bankruptcy of the imagination in its attempt to come up with better, tenable alternatives. The failure of materialism doesn’t mean that we can’t revise our mistakes and get closer to truth—that is, to have a less mistaken narrative that doesn’t portray itself merely as literature, but sincerely seeks to approach the facts of the matter through careful reasoning and rigorous study of the evidence at hand. Living with the best revised hypothesis we can come up with is—psychologically, culturally and socially—more realistic than the call for our civilization to deliberately replace philosophy with literature. This essay is part of our The Return of Metaphysics series, produced in collaboration with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). It was first published by the IAI on the 16th of June, 2022.

Richard Rorty, one of the most influential and debated philosophers of the twentieth century, wanted us to leave metaphysics behind. Metaphysics asks questions about the Nature of Things, of how things ultimately hang together. It proceeds from the presumption that there are first-order philosophical problems, such as ‘what is true?’, or ‘what is right?’, ‘what is good?’. And thus, it hinges on the belief that we can answer such underlying questions: it posits that reason, or rationality, or the right understanding of language will let us develop descriptions that converge on reality itself, that will mirror it in language. Rorty does not think we can do this. Not because we cannot properly capture such fundamentals in language, but because there are, on his view, no essences to discover: there is nothing to converge on; at least not in the essentialist sense metaphysics supposes.

While Rorty encourages us to make and remake helpful, shared ways to talk to achieve aims, predict events, manage our environment, express what we desire, what we find joyful or sad, or to cause joy or sadness or any other affect, he wants us to give up the quest for Truth. This mindset, he suggests, is not just misguided, but bears bad fruits. It seeks closure, an ending. It upholds oppression: because metaphysics wants to converge on the right descriptions, it will inevitably have to reject all other descriptions as, if not wrong, then inferior. But despite his rejection of metaphysics, Rorty does not want us to stop practicing philosophy. Instead, he wants philosophy to be practiced in a different spirit, one where philosophers think of themselves as ‘poets’, engaged in a ‘literary’ kind of criticism. Not criticism intent on critiquing poems, plays or novels—although that could be part of the mix too—but intent on poetically making and continually remaking our vocabularies, and by this our understanding of our world.

 

Radical acceptance of contingency, radical rejection of constraints

Rorty’s influences were numerous, but he most strongly identified with the American pragmatist tradition. This school holds, as James expressively put it, that “the trail of the human serpent is… over everything.” It stresses that our ideas emerge from imperfect, embodied human beings as socially propagated tools for thinking and coping. Our notions are entirely incorporated within and shaped by our dealings, needs and desires. Importantly, pragmatism suggests that acknowledging the context-dependence, use-value and fallibility of our ideas is a helpful thing to do, as it centers our potential for doing better. Tools for thinking might work for us, or not, and thus be picked up or put down, tinkered with or replaced.

What Rorty does, is push pragmatism to its limits. He suggests that we not only think of ideas in this way but even of our very words as contingent, material “noises and marks” that can have specific effects. When Rorty began his career, analytic philosophy of language was thought to finally be making proper progress towards delimiting criteria for true knowledge. It was geared towards the natural sciences, logic and mathematics, and while it acknowledged its indebtedness to (Kantian) metaphysics, it thought itself engaged in something more sensible and down-to-earth, more scientific: by finding out how language mapped onto the world, how it represented, it wanted to uncover how we arrived at true propositions, and thus how we might accumulate a body of knowledge that was a mirror image of the world in language. This differs radically from Rorty’s suggestion that we think of our noises and marks as having effects, like, say, coordinating our behavior and doings (think undertaking the Moon-landing), sparking joy or affecting comfort.

The mirroring-ambition, and philosophy of language as the contemporary dwelling of metaphysics, was what Rorty powerfully assailed in his 1979 tome Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. I find, however, that a phrase in a lecture he gave the same year best helps us understand his stance. He says that to be a pragmatist is to accept that there are “no constraints on inquiry” apart from “conversational ones,” no “constraints derived from the nature of objects, or of mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers.” This focuses on the “fundamental choice”: to accept “the contingent character” of all “starting points,” or not. In other words, what is at stake is accepting or rejecting metaphysics. Siding with Rorty here is to say there are no essences, no things in themselves: there is the materiality of the world, and we and our various ways of expressing ourselves are always merely and richly elements of this corporality. And it is to hold that it is in material, human conversation that we work and rework shared conceptions, our narratives of how things can be said to hang together, and how to proceed in this world.

It is important to know that ‘contingent,’ in Rorty, should never be understood as ‘accidental,’ nor merely recall Darwin’s lessons. It should be read as meaning emerged, evolved, dependent, carrying traces, coming with a history. It should bring to mind the “red wheelbarrow” in William Carlos William’s poem, or Harold Bloom’s elucidations of those inevitable yet sometimes hidden trails that go from poem to poem. What full acceptance of contingency achieves is to free us from the compulsion that we must identify the right starting points to become capable of taking proper action, or that we have an obligation to dig down to an immutable bedrock of principles before we know how to proceed. It moves our attention forward and encourages us to be active agents by suggesting that all we can do, is to start where we are, do what we can, with what we have.

What Rorty urges us to do is to make a less cruel future. To this end, he suggests two key strategies. To sustain and progress democratic culture, we ought to cultivate an ability to hold our concepts “lightly,” while taking their consequences seriously. We should learn to “conversationally” amend our ways, as our needs and insights evolve. This is not to say that having conversations is enough—it is not. “Conversationally” here means a practice founded on turning towards each other to collectively work out how to talk, and what to do. We, moreover, ought to build society around the overarching, shared aim of lessening “cruelty.” The former ability Rorty sometimes calls “ironism,” the latter goal “liberalism” (although scholars of his work are currently arguing that his identification with liberalism obscures strong commitments to more left-leaning, interventionist politics). To hold our concepts “lightly,” or be an “ironist,” is another way of expressing pragmatist fallibilism: that we should remain open to the possibility that we could work out better (linguistic) practices. To bring about an intellectual culture where we would proceed with this kind of humbleness, while also recognizing that we are fully responsible for our practices (we cannot outsource responsibility to God, say), Rorty suggests we need a “poeticization” of culture. But why couch it in these terms, and why does such a poeticization entail leaving metaphysics behind?

 

Leaving Metaphysics behind

Western philosophy has, of course, defined itself as something else than literature since the ancient Greeks. In Plato’s Republic, poetry, or art more broadly, helps delimit philosophy by representing what philosophy is not. Poets are deceitful makers of untruths, as opposed to philosophers who seek what is true. Philosophers do not simply make things up, inspired by the muses, but dispassionately contemplate ideas. This view of philosophy as on a quest for truth, and its enabling belief—that human reason is capable of understanding the conditions and structure of existence—also saturated the theories of later philosophers, such as the rationalist metaphysics of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. These philosophers might not have wanted to ban the poets, but held beauty, art and poetry as subjective productions of the imagination that could not be rationally grasped, and thus to be kept out of the domain of philosophy proper. This, then, is the kind of philosophy Rorty wished we’d stop doing: philosophy as metaphysics.

And metaphysics is, Rorty believed, coming to an end—or at least it potentially could if we worked at it. Its unravelling began with Immanuel Kant. This might seem counterintuitive, as Kant devised the most impressive metaphysical system philosophy has produced. While Kant rejected the view that human minds could comprehend the underlying structure of existence (how things are ‘in themselves’), he replaced this metaphysical project with another: the aim of understanding human reasoning as such, and by this come to understand how we arrive at true knowledge. But the pivotal role Kant plays in Rorty’s narrative has little to do with the details of Kantian philosophy, and everything to do with how Kant, by making what is a radically dismissive move, showed rising generations that it was possible to thoroughly redescribe philosophical presumptions and problems. By this, Kant paved the way for the Romanticist inversion of reason and feeling, and for the Nietzschean story, where the entire metaphysical endeavor since Plato is set aside as an attempt at formulating a secularized theology, a system for controlling human creativity and power by imposing rules on its expressions.

That metaphysics persists is, to Rorty, deeply problematic, because it diminishes our sense of agency and the fullness of our responsibility alike. It limits our ethical, critical and political imagination. So: in what way does metaphysics persist, why is that a problem, and what is Rorty’s alternative?

 

Metaphysics as a Problem for Philosophy

The belief that there are first-order philosophical problems lies at the heart of metaphysics as an enterprise (what, ultimately, exists, what is true, what is right, what is good?). If there are such problems, solving them requires that there are constraints on thought. Answering such questions depends on the possibility of uncovering ways of thinking and talking that converge on reality. If there are no limits imposable on thought and talk (set by God, the moral law within, Nature, Science) we end up—as Plato well knew and as every metaphysician has feared since—in the unbounded realm of imagination and poetry. Thus, as Rorty notes, it is not sufficient for the metaphysician to be constrained by social norms, nor the constraints of “the disciplines of our day”: the metaphysician wants to be constrained by the “ahistorical and nonhuman nature of reality itself.” When Rorty says there are only “conversational” constraints, he is thus both rejecting metaphysics and saying he is comfortable with thinking of himself as a poet, of his philosophy as a kind of poetry.

Rorty considers there to be two versions of metaphysics still at work today. There is the Platonic form, where objects are postulated for “treasured propositions to correspond to,” and the Kantian strategy of discovering those criteria that let us define “the essence of knowledge, or representation, or morality, or rationality.” He associates the former with continental philosophy, and the latter with analytic philosophy, but stresses that what they share is a “common urge to escape the vocabulary and practices of one’s own time and finding something ahistorical and necessary to cling to”: to answer questions by appeal to “something more than the ordinary, retail, detailed, concrete reasons which have brought one to one’s present view.” What metaphysics means and entails today is thus harder to grasp than the obviously universalizing systems of a Leibniz or a Kant, and thus the problems that such modes of operation are also more elusive and harder to overcome.

The problematic upshot of the requirement for constraints metaphysics imposes is, well, that it constrains, and that it does so by reference to criteria beyond the political, that is: beyond the ethico-social restraints that citizens of democratic societies negotiate and continually re-negotiate. That metaphysics is alive and well, and that its governing mindset impacts us all today, can be quickly demonstrated by asking, say, ‘what is a woman?’. To ask this as an ontological question, where the answer is supposed to tell us about what kind of essential characteristics a ‘proper’ woman has, or where the answer would lay down criteria by which we can identify her qua woman, is to pose a metaphysical question. And answering that question in the metaphysical spirit instantly rules out infinite ways in which our uses of the word ‘woman’ might be amended to better fit our way of life here and now, fit our visions of what a just world looks like and what it takes to allow all human beings to flourish. Think of how troublesome it is for some to accept that trans women are women.

Metaphysics thus conceived is not so much a philosophical problem as it is a problem for philosophy. Its imposition of limits stands in the way of imaginative experimentation and pragmatic, meliorative problem-solving. Moreover, metaphysics poses a democratic problem by placing a whole host of important matters of debate beyond the reach of ordinary human conversation and cooperative deliberation. Philosophy’s quest for stable grids is, in practice, if not always in intent, a move for mastery, and thus power, and in his later work, Rorty redescribed his pragmatist approach as “anti-authoritarianism” for such reasons.

What do we do if metaphysics is a problem for philosophy? Can we move beyond it? How difficult this is—and how easy it could be—is evident in Rorty’s discussion of why even the ardently anti-metaphysical theorist Jacques Derrida failed to do so. Rorty greatly admired Derrida and his efforts to topple the foundations of Western metaphysics. He wholly approved of Derrida’s attack on the “metaphysics of presence,” and incorporated Derridean insights about writing, materiality, attention to detail, effects, instability, process, poetry and play into his own work. Derrida himself declared his inability to move beyond metaphysics. Like Rorty, he knew he could never attain a clear, unbiased point of view outside the messiness and contiguity of human experience.

But whereas Derrida stressed that we, even as we argue against metaphysics, inevitably define our position in relation to it, and thus are trapped in a dance with its language and logic, Rorty does think there is a way out. We can decline to dance and walk away. Rorty suggests we stop theorizing, in this sense specific to philosophy and literary theory. Pragmatists are not against theory understood as writing that serves as a resource for deliberation or action. But Rorty wanted us to stop engaging in point-by-point refutation of arguments you’d rather see obsolete. Instead, he suggested we adopt a “literary” approach, where we mindfully get on with attending to material matters, playing “books against books,” and inventing different ways to talk in the hope that others will find it useful.

 

Philosophers should become ‘Literary’ Critics

What Rorty proposes is that we swap the quest for certainty with a practice of imaginatively making what we hope will be good, and adopt a relaxed attitude towards incommensurability, process and change. Because such a practice, intent on making a difference in the world, does not rely on there being extra-conversational constraints, it can be conceptualized as a poetic practice, or as ‘poetry.’ Thus, when Rorty talks about “poetry” he does not (always) mean it in a sense that indicates a distinctive use of stylistic markers, or use of words to evoke intensity of feeling or a sense of beauty. He often means originating from the human imagination and shaped, used, causing effects on, and being responded to, by us. But Rorty reserves talk of poets to those who are capable of “making it new,” a phrase he borrows from the modernist poet Ezra Pound: poets are capable of inventing new noises and marks and putting them to novel uses. Kant was, then, a poet in this sense. Anti-metaphysical philosophers such as Derrida and Rorty just have little use for Kant’s poems. Rorty demands less of the word ‘literature’ and for the last four decades of his life, he closely associated his pragmatist stance with a ‘literary’ kind of attitude.

‘Literature’ is here to be understood broadly, in a sense that goes well beyond novels and plays and poems. Rorty posits it as “a kind of writing” that attends to the material details of human experience, to the small and the multitudinous. It is also writing that is not Theory (Philosophy) with universalizing, metaphysical ambition. Rorty suggests literature is a richer resource for moral guidance than the religious or philosophical treatise, more helpful for enlarging our understanding of ourselves and the lives of others—not because it is intrinsically better in some way, but because literature, in its materiality and eschewal of the grand unifying abstractions, is a more useful resource for those who, like him, no longer hold on to the end-of-inquiry narrative. Such inquirers will be in search of resources that allow comparative evaluations of how things are versus how they could be, works that can help amend their specific aims and practices. Explications that purport to show how things ultimately hang together are at best less useful, and at worst function as conversation-stoppers, halting our meliorative efforts. For Rorty, ‘literature’—understood in a materialist, experience-attentive and expression-attentive sense where it includes “ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel,” as well as “the movie, and the TV program”—has proven itself vital for enriching our vocabularies and stock of narratives about who we are—and might become—and thus for working out how to progress from here. What practitioners working in this spirit want, is to become increasingly capable of amending and ‘redescribing’, of acting and talking in more useful ways. Literature serves this intention well.

Importantly, literature is also a kind of writing where we happily abandon representational constraints: we do not, for instance, require novels or poems to correspond to ‘reality’ in the way we traditionally expect the theories of science—or the grids of metaphysics—to do. Works of literature can be construed as ‘remarks’ in a conversation where we—despite not having universalizing ambitions or being constrained by Nature, or God, or eternal moral principles—nevertheless are working out how to live. Thus, I would argue that to grasp the significance of literature in Rorty, and particularly what he means when he talks about a ‘literary’ culture or philosophy as ‘literary’ criticism, it is imperative to see that in Rorty, this word ‘literary’ stands for the attitudinal antithesis to scientistic, metaphysical philosophy. Literary writing, in that broad sense as well as the narrow, emerges when one approaches the task of narrating ways things can be said to hang together from this anti-universalizing, anti-essentializing attitude.

The ‘literary’ attitude resists absolutes, totalizing grids, final solutions, the search for Truth. What Rorty wants to keep going is an intellectual and writerly practice mindfully uninterested in final solutions and absolute truths, and just as mindfully set on carrying on a conversation that is materially attentive and useful. This is what Rorty means by saying philosophers should become ‘literary’ critics.

 

Philosophy after Metaphysics

Rorty was a controversial figure, although less so now than before his death in 2007. Scholarly interest in his work is surging and efforts are made to put his work to use. It is not surprising, really, that it caused consternation to ask philosophers to take the side of the poets in “the ancient quarrel,” and thus to give up their governing ambition and adopt a radically different self-conception. But I would propose that Rorty’s effort to reconceptualize philosophy as a ‘literary’ kind of criticism is one of the most vital suggestions we can take from his work. We sorely need intellectuals that want to work in this spirit: who want to make a better future more than they want to get it right. And while provocative, Rorty’s narrative is a hopeful one, more hopeful than Nietzsche’s. For philosophy is assumed to be capable of reimagining itself as an open-ended, curious, imaginative, poetic kind of practice—one that sees our imagination as our greatest asset and centers the skill of poetically making and remaking vocabularies, and by this our understanding of our world.

Right now, unless we do remake our world, humanity and every form of life on this planet is in peril. We live in terrifying times, and yet we spend so much time and energy arguing about who is right in principle, and not enough energy on making matters right. Metaphysics wants to understand the Nature of Things. We should prioritize understanding what other people are saying and why. We need to negotiate shared ways to talk, to agree on knowledge equilibria and workable, mitigating practices, to enable us to collectively act. We need to pragmatically multi-solve our problems rather than ask ‘what is the answer?’. We would do well to think with Rorty of “objectivity as solidarity”—and well to suffuse everything we do with a desire to poetically remake who we are.

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