May 12, 2012

How Not to Leave the Profession

In the 1970s Richard Rorty was a professor of philosophy at Princeton. He was well-known in the profession. He had edited a well received anthology, The Linguistic Turn, and was considered a sharp, if idiosyncratic, thinker since he defended views such as that mental states don't exist. He could have spent the rest of his life at Princeton, fine tuning his views and resting on his laurels. But in 1979 he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The book made him infamous in the philosophy profession, and a celebrity in the humanities.
Written as a cross between a scholarly work and a manifesto (Word and Object crossed with The Communist Manifesto), Rorty argues that certain projects of philosophy which have been dominant since the 17th Century are bankrupt and have run their ground. The book aimed to deliver the final blow to these projects, and to help start a new way of doing philosophy. He claimed the old way tried to find universal philosophical truths which were supposed to be independent of humans, and that this project has to be dismissed because there are no such truths. It was a hopeless search. On the new way, philosophy isn't about finding universal truths, but about creating interesting conversations which mobalize the world towards greater social justice. On the old way philosophers are more like physicists. On the new way philosophers are more like artists. Actually, on the new way even physicists are like artists! Viva la revolution!
The publication of the book was an event. Like any academic text, Rorty's book is filled with arguments, interpretations of authors, subtle distinctions. But what gives the book life, and its distinctive voice, is that one senses in Rorty's writing deep wells of pent up frustration, resentment, anger. As if he woke up one day and decided, "Enough is enough. I will finally say what I really believe." One has the feeling that he is coming out of some kind of a closet. As if he is emerging from the Ivory Tower of Princeton with some glimmering secret. That some gig is up. Kind of like an informant who was on the board of a corrupt company and is finally speaking out.
The book reads in a way more like a piece of investigative journalism than like a normal academic text. Where a mild-mannered professor might have written, "Descartes had a false view of the mind, and here are my reasons for thinking so", Rorty writes as if to insinuate: "Descartes pulled a wool over our eyes, but we can finally overcome his treachery! We can now wake up!" There is the persistent feeling in the book that there has been a centuries long conspiracy, and that Rorty is uncovering it with the help of his intellectual heroes such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey and Davidson. I remember reading Rorty's book periodically in grad school. I am not sure I ever agreed with much of what he was saying. But given my own frustrations with the profession, it was the tone of the book which I found soothing. In contrast to the normally self-satisfied tone of academics, here was a genuinely frustrated academic. Most strange to me as a grad student: he had gotten tenure and was still frustrated! And he tried to express that, however vaguely. I admired that.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature made Rorty one of the "IT" guys in literature departments and the humanities. Academics who felt that philosophy had lost its way, and that it had become reduced to squabbling over the meaning of words now had something to point to and say, "See, even a Princeton professor of philosophy says so!" Naturally the idea that philosophy should seek to emulate literature was a welcome view to many literature professors. By the 70s this idea already had some grip in literature departments due to the influence of "continental" thinkers such as Derrida. The real coup provided by Rorty was that he was using the seemingly logic chopping views of "analytic" thinkers such as Quine and Davidson to argue that actually Derrida was right. The broader academic world applauded the call to revolution. Rorty won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 1981. And in 1982 Rorty left the philosophy department at Princeton to become a general professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. It was if Rorty had called out the philosophy profession with his book, and then decided that he can't wait for old-fashioned philosophy professors to catch up to him. He was going to lead the revolution from outside philosophy departments.

I think the philosophy profession was stuck in terms of how to respond to Rorty. There was no denying that the book was well written. Passionate. Showed erudition of some kind. But what kind exactly? To make matters worse, there seemed something contradictory about proceeding in the normal way: reviews in journals, reading it in graduate seminars, having Rorty come give a talk in the department. For though Rorty never says it explicitly, the implication in the book is clear that he thinks that contemporary professional philosophy is still mainly beholden to the doomed Cartesian view. Even worse, Rorty draws a contrast between philosophy as seeking universal truths ("mirroring nature") and philosophy as socially engaged. The implication is that philosophers who follow the universal truths model are part of the establishment, and that just in virtue of being part of the establishment, they are blocking social change. Engaging with Rorty in the same old way thus seemed impossible, for it was precisely the momentum to continue in the same old way which Rorty hoped to thwart. The situation was...awkward. I would love to have been able to over hear conversations between Rorty and his Princeton colleagues. "Well, Dick, you really stuck it to the profession in your book. Nicely done. What are you thinking of writing next?" -- "Thanks, Tom. Yes, I wanted to basically show that I feel constrained and horribly trapped in my current situation." -- "Ok. Great job. See you at the faculty meeting tomorrow?"
Rorty's book can seem charged, like it has a dynamic energy unusual for academic books. I think this is because it functions as a kind of litmus test. How one responds to the book seems to say something about what kind of a philosopher one is. Is one going to respond by wanting to join the revolution and help use philosophy to create social change? Or is one going to be a part of the establishment by asking "silly", "stale" questions like, "Wait, did Descartes really say that? What are your reasons for attributing the view you do to Descartes?" Is one going to say, "Alright, how can I contribute to the conversation by creating new modes of philosophy?" Or is one going to say, "Listen, Rorty, on page 146 you are conflating four different senses of representation. I can't engage with your big picture points until you precisely explain every word you use."

In effect what Rorty did was to structure the debate, consciously or unconsciously, in such a way that anyone who disagreed with him got pegged as a conservative. What he really wanted was to change the institutional habits of the philosophy profession: the modes of writing, how one teaches introductory classes, what happens at professional meetings. I think he started to see the classic philosophy problems ("How is the mind related to the body?", "Is there free will?", etc.) as illusions perpetuated by the ruling classes to stay in power and have control over others. The idea is: to say that philosophy is about Truth is to say that people who can access that Truth have knowledge which others don't have, which is to say that societies should be organized in such a way that those who can access that Truth are entitled to power in the society (since the ignorant masses will only lead us astray), which in turn is to say that unless you can understand Aristotle or Kant you would be relegated to the status of a second-class citizen. Nietzsche argued that priests keep up the illusion of an Infinite God so as to control the masses. Rorty replaced the priests with philosophy professors and the Infinite God with Eternal Truths, and felt, to his horror, that the philosophy profession which he hoped would lead the revolution was actually the intellectual center of the status quo. For Rorty, as for Nietzsche or Foucault or Derrida, claims of Truth are always also claims of power, and so to institutionalize claims of who is closest to the deepest philosophical Truths is to affirm intellectual class structures. Add the idea that intellectual class structures are the conceptual foundations of social class structures, and you get Rorty's claim that forgoing Truth is a pre-requisite for true democracy.

This brings out what seems to me the deepest emotion guiding his book: guilt. Like with anyone who seems to protest a little too strongly against something, one can't shake the feeling that the reason why Rorty is so critical of Plato and Descartes and Kant is that perhaps he knows the feeling of loving their ideas only too well. It is as if he feels betrayed by them. That the tenured Rorty is thinking about the high school Rorty who feel in love with philosophy by reading Plato and Descartes, and concludes, "Damn! I was hoodwinked! I thought the Cartesian doubt was going to bring about a revolution, that dedicating my life to discovering the Forms is going to help me bring people out of the cave. And yet, all it lead to is the rarified air of Princeton, and I am going to spend my whole life talking about interpretations of interpretations of Descartes and Plato, and ever more permutations of the problems they bequeathed to us! When will I ever get to the actual revolution part?" His conclusion: the revolution will start only once one ditches Plato and Descartes, and sees that they were completely wrong.
Once the issues are structured in this way, it becomes hard to have dispassionate, academic conversations about how best to interpret Descartes' Discourse on Method or Kant's Groundwork. For suddenly the issue is not what exactly did Descartes or Kant say. Rather the issue becomes: How much longer are we going to keep talking about Descartes and Kant? The normal answer for philosophy professors is, "well, until we get it right", which practically ends up meaning forever. I can imagine that Rorty was ill disposed to engage in such scholarly debates because, from his perspective, it only re-enforces his criticism of traditional philosophy. His objection is that talk of discovering Truth often becomes a way to forestall social change. And here it is happening again! Rorty wants to create social change: he wants to alter the modes of professional philosophy, a change which hopefully will have broader ramifications down the line in the society. And the traditional philosophers want to "discover the Truth" about what Descartes meant, and they say the only way to do that is to engage with Descartes scholarship, which will lead to one's life being dedicated to just that--and so one can say goodbye to actually changing the structures of the philosophy profession!
It is not hard to see that Rorty and a traditional philosopher are bound to talk past each other. The traditional philosopher says, "Listen, you are making grand claims. You have to justify them. And that requires going through the normal, professional methods of justification--peer review." In order words, "Look here, Rorty, you don't know shit about Descartes or Kant, atleast not the way early modern scholars do. So stop making overblown claims, and do some real philosophy." And Rorty says, "Your peer review process is just a way to silence me, and to forstall the move to revolution." In other words, "You traditional philosophers are pansies. While the world is burning you would rather sit in a seminar room and discuss whether there is a Noumenal realm (let me clue you in: there isn't!)." When I would read Rorty responding to his critics or when I would see a video of him on YouTube, I would feel that he permanently had an expression of boredom and exasperation. As in, "do we have to do this again?" And that perhaps within himself he was thinking, like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."
Once when I was talking to a scholar of early modern philosophy, an expert on Descartes, the issue of Rorty came up. The generally mild-mannered professor became animated with a sudden passion, and said, "I really dislike that book. The things he says about Descartes, the pronouncements he presumes to make--it is just a horrible piece of scholarship." At the time I assumed this was the usual sour grapes. Rorty had won the publicity game outside the philosophy profession, leaving many philosophers pissed off. Ironically, it was only after I left the philosophy profession that I realized there was a deep truth in this professor's comment.

The crux of the issue is: What kind of a claim is Rorty making when he says that the project of thinkers like Descartes, Hume and Kant is caput? What kind of an expertise underlies this claim?

One possibility: "Rorty is an expert on Descartes. Clearly he has read a lot of Descartes, and even a lot of discussions of Descartes. So he is making the claim as such an expert." This idea might fly outside professional philosophy, but from inside it is easily dismissed. Rorty knows as much about Descartes as any person who gets a philosophy PhD knows. But inside the philosophy profession it is obvious that Rorty is not an expert on Descartes the way that people like Margaret Wilson and Gary Hatfield are experts (the people who spend most of their time thinking about Descartes).
Another possibility: "Okay, Rorty is not an "expert" on Descartes. But he is an intelligent thinker who is thinking critically about some of the deeper assumption Descartes made." The trouble with this idea is that it comes back to the questions: What deeper assumptions did Descartes make? Who is in a position to best identify those assumptions? For example, did Descartes actually think that the mind is just a glassy essence completely separated from the body? One can say this is one interpretation of what Descartes said, but it is hard to say with authority that this is what Descartes really said. Not when there are some Descartes scholars writing books about how, contrary to popular belief, Descartes had a deeply embodied view of the mind. Or that The Meditations is best read not as obtuse epistemology, but as epistemology which propelled real social change at that time.

Third possibility: "Fine, Fine. Let's say there is a popular conception of Descartes. Rorty is an expert on the pitfalls and problems with that popular conception." The trouble with this idea is that it totally deflates the revolutionary pose of Rorty's writing. Rorty's book caused a scandal because of its vague hints that through the book Rorty is challenging the deepest assumptions of contemporary professional philosophy, as if he has caught the tiger by the tail. But there is no scandal, and no outing and no revolution, if Rorty is just tilting at windmills. If the assumptions Rorty is attacking aren't really Descartes' assumptions, then even if professional philosophy is committed to Cartesian projects, there is no reason to think that Rorty is attacking assumptions entrenched in professional philosophy.

The problem is that in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty has contradictory commitments. On the one hand, he is committed to professional philosophy standards of what counts as understanding Descartes' views. After all, Rorty published the book as a professional philosopher. The book is filled with references to journal articles and professional books which only other professional philosophers would normally read, and so which only they would normally be in the best position to evaluate. The book reads as Rorty saying, "Here is the latest cutting edge work in professional philosophy, including Sellars and Davidson." On the other hand, Rorty is committed to the book criticizing the deepest values of professional philosophy, as if professional philosophy is a sham and a ruse. As if the deepest assumptions of professional philosophy are not so much false (since, after all, there is no truth) as insincere. Or obsolete. As if he is trying to break through the confines and emerge into fresh air.
The first commitment highlights Rorty as a part of the status quo. The second commitment highlights Rorty as a revolutionary. How can Rorty be both at once? How does revolutionary Rorty make sense of status quo Rorty, and vice versa? Along the line of these questions emerges the possibility that the frustration which seems to lie below the surface of Rorty's writing is in part his frustration with himself. That the urgency of the writing masks perhaps some self-hatred--perhaps some desperate attempt to free himself with one hand from the very kind of expertise which he clings to with the other hand. The tension in the book is that the professional assumptions which he aims to criticize are the very assumptions which also give him the standing to make such criticisms. It is was this tension that most professional philosophers were annoyed by. It comes across as grand-standing and hypocritical to say that when others speak as philosophy experts they are part of the status quo, but that when Rorty speaks as a philosophy expert he is a revolutionary.
I imagine this is why it was natural for him to change his professional residence from philosophy departments to comparative literature departments. For in philosophy departments the tension between his two commitments is constantly in his face. But in a literature department the tension is lessened; or, at any rate, more out of one's mind. Surrounded by literature professors and students, there is no one to call out Rorty on whether he is really a Descartes expert. Or an epistemology expert. Or an ethics expert. In the new context, he is always the philosophy expert. One who was so committed to philosophy that he left that profession and ventured into uncharted territory.
The trouble with this narrative of the supposed sacrifice in leaving the profession is that the move actually lifted Rorty into an even more privilaged role than that of a Princeton philosophy professor. He became a public intellectual. One no longer constrained by any particular disciplinary norms, since, strictly speaking, he belonged to no one discipline at all. Whereas a normal philosophy or literature professor is bound by the review of her peers, Rorty is less bound by such constraints because it is no longer quite clear who his peers are. The philosophy professors, the story goes, are too old fashioned. But the literature professors don't know Sellars and Davidson enough to understand how exactly the philosophy profession had overcome itself--there is the uncomfortable possibility that they agree with Rorty mainly because they like the way he talks. In a way the only possible peers for Rorty are equally uber-famous academics: Derrida, Habermas, Hilary Putnam, Cornel West, etc. This raises the question: by leaving professional philosophy departments did Rorty actually ascend the academic ladder? The celebrity he achieved suggests "yes". And perhaps with each rung climbed the inner guilt only grew stronger. For through the ascension did Rorty get closer to the revolution or further away from it?
It is puzzling to think that after calling out the philosophy profession Rorty thought the natural next place to go to was another humanities department. For it is a common idea in universities that it is philosophy which is at the root of a liberal arts education. Nowhere is the Cartesian idea that philosophy is the root of all knowledge more deeply entrenched than in modern universities, which give the sense that every area of knowledge has its own department, and that the philosophy department has links to all these departments because it is concerned with the most general questions of truth, value and objectivity. Hence the specializations within philosophy departments of philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of literature, etc. If the philosophers themselves have fallen prey to Cartesian illusions, and if the Cartesian illusions have become central to our modern society, what hope could non-philosophers have to combat such illusions?
There is a strangeness to Rorty's professional move. It is as if he yells, "Fire! Fire! We need to totally rethink the deepest assumptions of the last two thousand years! We need to give up even the assumptions of Truth and Reason. And philosophy departments are failing in this regard!" And then he calmly walks to the other end of the hallway, and then starts hanging out in seminar rooms there. Of course, the point isn't that people can't go from philosophy departments to literature departments. Certainly anyone can hang out in whatever department they want, and make whatever move works for them. But it seems convenient and disingenuous to suggest the failure of a whole profession as the reason for the move. It can seem as if, at the end of the day, Rorty just preferred some colleagues to others. Which can be a perfectly fine reason in itself, without all the hand waving about revolution.

By leaving the philosophy departments Rorty suggested that he was okay with losing the label of a philosophy expert. As it happened, he didn't actually lose this label, and it got attached to him from outside philosophy departments. But ultimately Rorty never sought to abandon the label of an intellectual expert. In his worldview the way he was going to contribute to social change was still through changing academia. As if it is academia which is the engine of the deepest social change. As if it is the expertise gained through understanding Heidegger and Derrida and Dewey which is most essential to helping everyone in society realize their right to self-expression. As if the most pressing contemporary social changes require realizing that Plato and Descartes had been wrong after all. As if not realizing that is the real cause of problems in society. As if Rorty is a kind of Indiana Jones or Robert Langdon, where, lo and behold!, the most arcane academic disagreements somehow turn out to be at the root of the most pressing social issues.

In the end Rorty substituted the ideal of those best placed to find truths with the ideal of those best placed to continue the conversation. From inside academia this can seem like a grand call for revolution. From outside academia it can seem like just one more debate that most people in the world cannot understand, evaluate or contribute to. It is hard to imagine people struggling to work without a high school education or to raise their children while making minimum wage pick up a Rorty book and feel empowered by it. It is hard to imagine them even in the situation of picking up a Rorty book. And if they did, their most natural reaction might be either, "Oh, this is smart people talk I don't know anything about" or "This is some pretentious shit". Given that Rorty believed that the aim of philosophy is to create conversations which can foster social hope, I wonder why he never actually wrote in a way that the people most in need of such hope could understand. Perhaps he was worried that if he didn't write like an academic to other intellectuals he would be rendered voiceless. That no one would hear him.

Well, that might have put him closer to the problem he was interested in.

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