Paths to Story Telling as Life:
Fellow Traveling with Richard Rorty
2 July 2007
(comments welcome, go to end;
see also Rorty, Non-Foundationalism and Story Telling: A Conversation )
I first encountered Richard Rorty's work  rather late in both our lives. Having done so, I regret never having met him and, with his death on 8 June 2007, the loss of the chance ever to do so. Perhaps though its all for the best. Following a quite different path, I found myself in interesting places that Rorty too had reached. That different people can get to a place in different ways, and in the absence of any direct connection with one another, provides reassurance that there is some kind of a meaningful there there. And a reason to share stories both about how one got there and where one might explore next.
I'm very fond of Rorty's 1992 essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids", and think its a good place to start ...
"So, at 12, I knew that the point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice ... But I also had private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests ... [including a] desire to learn all there was to know about orchids ... At fifteen, I escaped ... to ... the University of Chicago .. to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or esthetic framework which would let me - in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats - ' hold reality and justice in a single vision' ...
I read through Plato during my fifteenth summer, and convinced myself that Socrates was right - virtue was knowledge ... Socrates had to be right, for only then could one hold reality and justice in a single vision. So I decided to major in philosophy ... I wanted very much to be some kind of Platonist, and from 15 to 20, I did my best. But it didn't pan out ...
The more philosophers I read, the clearer it seemed to me that each of them could carry their views back to first principles which were incompatible with the first principles of their opponents, and that none of them every got to that fabled place 'beyond hypotheses'. There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated.
Since that initial disillusion ... I have sent 40 years looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for. My starting point was the discovery of Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit ... If philosophy can be, at best, only what Hegel called "its time held in thought" ... that might be enough ... one might do what Marx wanted done - change the world ... For quite a while ... I thought that the two greatest achievements of the species ... were The Phenomonology of Spirit and Remembrance of Things Past (the book which took the place of the wild orchids when I left Flatbrookville for Chicago) ... It was the cheerful commitment to irreducible temporality which Hegel and Proust shared - the specifically anti-Platonic element in their work - that seemed so wonderful. They both seemed able to weave everything ... into a narrative without asking that that narrative have a moral, and without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity.
About 20 years or so after I decided that the young Hegel's willingness to stop trying for eternity, and just be the child of his time, was the appropriate response to disillusionment with Plato, I found myself being led back to [John] Dewey. Dewey now seemed to me a philosopher who had learned all that Hegel had to teach about how to eschew certainty and eternity ... I had gotten back on good terms with Dewey; I had articulated my historicist anti-Platonism; I had finally figured out what I thought about the direction and value of current movement in analytic philosophy; I had sorted out most of the philosophers whom I had read. But I had not spoken to any of the questions which got me started reading philosophers in the first place. I was no closer to the single vision which, 30 years back, I had gone to college to get.
As I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, I gradually decided that the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake - that a pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray ... I decided that only religion - only a non-argumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power and justice in equal measure - could do the trick Plato wanted done ... So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision.
That book - Contingency, Irony and Solidarity - argues that there is no need to weave one's personal equivalent of Trotsky and one's personal equivalent of my wild orchids together ... The two will, for some lucky people, conincide ... But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so ... Singlemindedness ... is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself ... rather than accepting your finitude. The latter means, among other things, accepting that what matters to you may never matter much to most people . But that is no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off [your particularities] ... There is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) or what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).
This means that the fact that you have obligations to other people (not to bully them, to join them in overthrowing tyrants, to feed them when they are hungry) does not entail that what you share with other people is more important than anything else. What you share with them ... is not 'rationality' or 'human nature' or 'the fatherhood of God' or 'a knowledge of the Moral Law', or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others ... There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain ... [is] going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together. There is, in short, not much reason to hope for the sort of single vision that I went to college hoping to get.
Socrates and Plato suggested that if we tried hard enough we should find beliefs which everybody found intuitively plausible, and that among these would be moral beliefs whose implications, when clearly realized, would make us virtuous as well as knowledgeable ... unwobbling pivots that determine the answer to the question: Which moral or political alternative is objectively valid? For Deweyan pragmatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage.
[Philosophers] are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is 'rational and objective' rather than 'just' a result of how you were brought up ... There are still ... 'philosophical slop-shops' on every corner that will provide such confirmation. But there is a price. To pay the price you have to turn your back on intellectual history and on what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel'. You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them ...
Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books. For I learned something ... to distrust the intellectual snobberywhich originally led to read them.
If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls 'a full presence beyond the reach of play', for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision. By now, I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings. The democratic community of Dewey's dreams is a community in which nobody imagines that. It is a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a ... community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species. In comparison, even Hegel's and Proust's books seem optional, orchidaceous extras."
There are lots of things in Rorty's story that resonate for me. Perhaps most generally, its a story of ... inquiry, of ongoing exploration of the world, of oneself, and of the relation between the two. And hence its a story of change, and of creation. Rorty continually challenged both himself and the worlds he found yourself in, and used that challenging to conceive both for himself and for others ways of being that might not have existed but for his explorations. Lives like Rorty's are to be celebrated, taken as a model to aspire to and to encourage for others ... and valued as the wherewithal for further exploration.
More specifically, Rorty's is a story of the discovery that there are no "unwobbling pivots", and of conceiving in their stead new ways to make sense of and deal with the human condition. Its here where the different paths Rorty and I took to a similar place seems to me worth noticing. Rorty's path was through philosophy and the conclusion that "There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated". Having read widely and thought deeply and critically about some of the most sophisticated products of human thought, Rorty recognized that such products seem invariably to derive from foundational principles and that there have not yet existed foundational principles which cannot be challenged by further human thought.
My own path to a recognition of the absence of "unwobbling pivots" came through empirical science rather than philosophy, and so I coined the term "empirical non-foundationalism" to describe the view from what I am pretty sure is the same position (From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry ). The point is not only that a humanist and a scientist might converge on a particular story but something deeper as well. Rorty recognized important limitations in deductive thought and the stories one tells based on them : their reliance on challengeable first principles (as had earlier the Greek skeptics, and more recently Godel and Turing and work following from theirs). My own recognition was of the limitations of inductive thought: the impossibility of deriving universals from collections of observations (as had Kant, Popper, and others). It is not only that universals require an infinite number of observations, but also that any finite set of observations is consistent with multiple conceivable universals (cf The "Problem of Unconceived Alternatives" and Its Significance  and Thinking About Science: Fact versus Story Telling ).
Rorty's story and my own are not only compatible but mutually reinforcing. If there are actually genuine "unwobbling pivots" to be found, it would have to be by some process other either deductive or inductive thought. Neither philosophy nor science seem capable of providing them.
One might of course turn to one or another religious (or political or humanist) tradition for "unwobbling pivots". This, though, amounts to ignoring both the philosophical problem of how to justify any chosen unwobbling pivot, as well as the empirical evidence that one doesn't seem to get to them through observations. And, perhaps more importantly, it leaves untouched the human problem of people asserting different unwobbling pivots and commiting atrocities on one another in defense of them. Far better Rorty suggests, and I agree, to accept that "there are no unwobbling pivots" and find a different way to conceive and deal with the human condition. "Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them are in fact a solid starting point, in the sense that none can be taken as a given not subject to further skepticism and exploration. Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed" (Writing Descartes...) .
There, though, is the rub for many people. No unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points? How is one to proceed? One can feel the threatened decline into immobility, into the existential angst about which Albert Camus and other existentialists wrote, or into the similar contemporary fear of rampant individualism or "the dictatorship of relativism ". But Rorty saw other more appealing paths, and I do as well. As Camus wrote of Sisyphus, his existential hero, the absence of eternal order "makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among humans ... [hence] he knows himself to be the master of his days. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go ... One must imagine Sisyphus happy".
There are additional substantial similarities, as well as some perhaps useful additional complementarities between Rorty's story and my own. We share a feeling that it makes sense to not only accept one's "finitude" but to actively enjoy "irreducible temporality". We share as well an appreciation for John Dewey and the pragmatists, and their efforts, in the early part of the 20th century, to move away from Platonic approaches both in philosophy and in human affairs generally. We also share a sense that there is no reason to privilege "the universal" over "the idiosyncratic", "no reason to be ashamed of, or downgrade, or try to slough off [your particularities]" (cf Diversity and Deviance ). We share too a sense of the importance of "the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel", of the potentials inherent in declining a "self-sufficient synoptic vision" whether created by others or oneself, and of the worth of "all those books" in helping one to get to new places.
Do all of those similarities follow in turn from a similar recognition of the absence of unwobbling pivots and unchallengable starting points? Or are they each distinct "orchidaceous extras" for both of us, perhaps ones that collectively contribute to a recognition of an appealing absence of unwobbling pivots and unchallengable starting points? Its an interesting question in its own right, and particularly important if one is (as Rorty and I both are) trying to get "as much intersubjective agreeement as [we] can manage". Are we, despite ourselves, offering an alternative "foundational" story, or something else? And if the latter, on how much commonality in orchidaceous extras does it depend for its appeal?
I'm not sure how Rorty would have answered these questions. Let me take a crack at them though for both of us, recognizing that my suggestions reflect my distinctive path through science and empiricism. Maybe this is another place where such a path come be helpful. I've been very much impressed by the notion that biological evolution can be thought of as an undirected process of exploration of the possible forms of living organisms, that there is apparently only a randomness driven process of trying things out from which comes the enormously rich and adaptive complexity of life that we see around us (and that includes ourselves).
Biological evolution, undertstood in these terms, may well be the archetype of a process proceeding without unwobbling pivots or unchallengeable starting points. And of pragmatism. And of "finitude" and "irreducible temporality". And of the value of the idiosyncratic. There is no way to say what works except by trying it out. What exists at any given time is what has worked. What is next tried out is influenced but not determined by the past, and it in turn influences but does not determine the future. As the process proceeds new possibilities come into existence that derive precisely from the particularities of what has existed so far. The story of biological evolution suggests not only that life can be successfully lived without unwobbling pivots or unchallengeable starting points but that such a life can be enormously productive .
A second set of observations I've encountered along my path has to do with the organization of the human brain, and what I call its "bipartite" organization. The basic idea here is that because of how the brain is organized all the things we experience (including perceptions, understandings, and aspirations) are inevitably "stories ", ie one of a variety of ways to make sense of the world and ourselves that are grounded in unexamined (and hence challengeable) presumptions of which we are unaware. From this, of course, and the added feature that all brains are somewhat different, follows the notion that one cannot in principle find anything like a complete "neutral standpoint".
More importantly, perhaps, the organization of the brain is such that it itself contains, at any given time, not one set of understandings but a variety of them, some of which we are aware of and others of which we are not. And the various understandings need not be and frequently are not consistent with one another. We contain within ourselves both "idiosyncracies" and "universals". Indeed, our "universals" are constructed by one part of our brain in an effort to provide a coherent story of our idiosyncracies. Just as biological evolution uses particularities to open new possibilities, so too is our brain organized to create and update new understandings/stories/universals out of our idiosyncracies (together with the stories of others and our interactions with them and the rest of world around us). It is that process that yields "the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel".
Rorty's quotation was from Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, an exploration of literature, but both Rorty and Kundera had much more in mind than the literary novel. Kundera himself, at another point in the same book, writes of "the novel's wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty)". What is being recognized and celebrated as the "imaginative realm" by both Kundera and Rorty is neither "universals" nor "idiosyncracies" but rather the play between the two from which the "novel" (as in "new, not previously existing") derives. And this capacity to generate the novel exists not only despite uncertainty but precisely because of it, in both biological evolution and the brain (Variability in Brain Function and Behavior ).
What all of this in turn suggests is that whatever different orchidaceous elements brought Rorty and I to the same location, there is a single element that will suffice: an inclination to at least acknowledge, and perhaps even to enjoy, uncertainty. If there exist non-deterministic process in the world, it follows that conclusions made inductively from observations must always be held tentatively since an inconsistent future observation is always possible. Similarly, any conclusions based on reduction of observations to date to "first principles" and deduction needs also to be understood as subject to reconsideration and revision.
Perhaps, then, there is an underlying single reason for our inability to locate unwobbling pivots and unshakeable starting points either deductively or inductively? Perhaps we are living in a universe that itself consists of a "randomness driven process of trying things out", and are both a part of and a resultant of such a process. In such a universe, it would not be surprising to have evolve entities, like living organisms in general, who collect observations about things outside themselves and use them inductively to modify themselves in ways that enhance their persistance. It would further not be surprising for such entities to make use of some degree of randomness to further adapt to their surroundings, as all living organisms do to one degree or another. Finally, it would not be surprising if there subsequently came into existence living entities like ourselves, who create and share stories about their observations. Nor surprising if there were some who began to wonder if there special stories, based on unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points, from which all observations (past and future) could be derived. That would, of course, be the ultimate way of assuring persistance.
One might imagine that it would be quite a shock to such entities to be told that their imagined ultimate way of assuring persistance is simply not to be found, and that they are better off acknowledging their own "finitude". One can imagine responses like "romantic bourgeois liberal" (a phrase Rorty used for himself in acknowledgement of antipathies he provoked in others), "cultural relativist", and "weakens our intellectual resilience and leaves us even more open to rhetorical seduction" (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/ ).
For other story tellers, though, the notion of living in an uncertain universe, of being part and parcel of imagining new things and trying them out without relying on unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points may seem less surprising, perhaps even so familiar as not to require special notice. It is, after all, the world we are born into and that most people live in most of the time. It is a world where people have experiences, create stories that give them some imperfect but improved ability to anticipate the future and suggest new ways of being, have further experiences, and modify their stories accordingly. What's wrong with such a world?
Lots of things, one might say. Ranging from "I don't know what I want" to "I'm not getting what I want" to "lots of people have more than other people have" to "people are doing horrible things to one another" to "we are as a species threatening the world in which we live and hence our own existence". Yes, of course, that's all true. But the question at hand is not whether there are things wrong with the world but whether asserting the existence of unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points is a useful way of approaching whatever problems one would like to fix.
I'm inclined to argue (and suspect Rorty would agree) that empirical evidence to date suggests it is not, indeed that assertions of particular unwobbling pivots or unshakeable starting points have proven to be at least as much of a problem creator as a problem solver. Monotheism, in its various forms, brought into existence some useful new things but also created new problems. The same holds for the enlightenment and its commitment to rationality, and for democracy, free market economics, and socialism and communism. As expected of an evolutionary process, new things create new problems ... and new opportunities. And that, of course, takes us back to Rorty's interest in "what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision", to my more general suggestion that "one has to find another, different way to proceed", and to "finitude", "pragmatism", and the "wisdom of the novel".
My argument (and I think Rorty's too) is not only that the search for unwobbling pivots and unshakeable starting points is frustrating and creates more problems than in solves but that it is unnecessary. We already have what we actually need to get on with life (and inquiry), always have and always will. One acts, out of whatever combination of coherent/incoherent feelings/thoughts/motivations/stories one has at any given time, "observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they have relevance. If they raise questions about the stories of other people, so be it. If the raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine too. And the same of course holds for the validity of the feelings one had, or the logic one was using, or the sense data one had collected. Its all open to reconsideration and renewal". Both the world one finds oneself in and ... onself. "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am" (Writing Descartes...) .
Is that too simple? Too Pollyanna-ish? Does it "weaken our intellectual resiliance and leave us more open to rhetorical seduction"? Is it "abject relativism" ... "letting oneself be carried here and there by the winds of doctrine"? Does it leave one passive in the face of oppression, of ourselves and others, relying only on "the tolerance and decency of ... fellow human beings"?
I don't think that was Rorty's bottom line, and it certainly is not my own. "Empirical non-foundationalism" is not a justification for "a dictatorship of relativism" but rather an antidote for it, one that declines the temptation to challenge old foundationalisms with new ones but provides nonetheless clear and compelling directions for action, both individual and collective. Rather than weakening "our intellectual resiliance", leaving us to be "carried here and there by the winds of doctrine", it strengthens our resistance to doctrine from whatever origin, insisting that we treat all doctrines with skepticism, that we take from each what is useful at any given time but deny that any precludes the need to keep questioning and exploring. There is no "authority" but our own, the one we are continually creating and reshaping within ourselves.
And the "authority" we grant ourselves we grant equally to all others. As Albert Camus says in The Rebel: "The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself ... The freedom he claims, he claims for all ... Therefore there is something more in history than the relation between mastery and servitude." The point of rebellion is not to replace one authority with another but rather to find "something more in history", something yet to be conceived that will open new directions in the ongoing exploration. And what this depends on is not only our similarities with other people, our current "intersubjective agreements" about yet to be challenged "universals" but, at least as importantly and perhaps more so, on our particularities, our idiosyncracies, the differences between us out of which come things beyond those any of us could have conceived alone.
The point of empirical non-foundationalism is not simply the principled rejection of foundational claims but the use of that rejection as a platform for continuing exploration, for conceiving new ways of being that solve old problems and in turn open new avenues for exploration. And the point is not to privilege the individual over the community but rather to bring about communities of individuals who respect and value one another for their differences and the contributions those make to the further development of new stories, individual and collective. Rather than simply relying on "the tolerance and decency ... of fellow human beings", we should be building communities in which we can count on a shared sense of value in each other, communities in which, as Rorty says, it is being human, "rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters."
Accepting, even enjoying, uncertainty gives us not only a way of living in and dealing with an exploratory world but a motivation for finding better ways for dealing with our fellow human beings as well. As explorers, inquirers, we each rely on and need the different but related explorations that our fellow human beings are engaged in. We need communities that "take the time to feel and reflect and think, to tell and listen to each other's stories ..." and that are committed "to finding ways to tell our collective human story in ways from which no one feels estranged" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/serendip/11sept2001/ ). Can such communities be created? Not easily, but the directions seem clear (Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Creation ). Would they create new problems? Of course, but that is is the nature of evolution, and there are lots of existing problems they would seem to solve (Culture as Disability ). Conceiving of human cultures as part of an ongoing exploration by the universe as a whole might in addition help us to appreciate our interdependences with other living organisms and our planet.
Would Rorty have endorsed my story of "empirical non-foundationalism"? I doubt it. After all, it is a story, one of many ways of making sense of things even if we shared the same observations, which we didn't. And one that has underlying pivots and foundations, both visible and, probably, as yet to be discovered. Can one really subsume all of the "orchidaceous extras" under a recognition and enjoyment of uncertainty? of finding new ways of being? Probably not.
I'd like to think though that Rorty would have appreciated the story of empirical non-foundationalism for what it is, a story that relates closely to his own, and is potentially useful to both him and others. Though the story has pivots and foundations, as any story must, they are neither unwobbling nor unshakeable. Is there still a place for people who prefer to search for unwobbling pivots and unshakeable assumptions? for certainty? Yes, indeed. Work of this kind has contributed importantly to both Rorty's story and my own, and is likely to go on contributing importantly to humanity's story. Might someone yet find a way to establish that there are in fact some set of unwobbling pivots and unshakeable assumptions that everyone will agree to? Yes, neither Rorty nor I would claim to have proven that that could not happen; that would itself constitute a claim of an unwobbling pivot/unshakeable foundation and hence be inconsistent with the thrust of both Rorty's story and my own. What both stories say only is that such foundations cannot be found along particular paths. To which I would add that empirical observations of the universe might me think it is unlikely they will be found along any other paths either. And that a world in which everything follows from a set of first principles wouldn't, in any case, be a very appealing one in which to live, for me at least. I would prefer a universe in which there is enough uncertainty to assure that the future has new things in it, and enough to allow me to conceive of rectifying existing wrongs and perhaps even contribute to doing so (even at the price of creating new problems).
Exploring, trying things out, enjoying both our idiosyncracies and our efforts to conceive "universals" will get us to the unwobbling pivots/unshakeable foundations if they exist. In which case, both my story and Rorty's will have been proven wrong. In the meanwhile, I hope both stories, and their intersections and complementarities, provide useful tools that others can employ in their own explorations and efforts to get places that no one has yet gotten to.
Your reactions and further thoughts are welcome in the on-line forum below. You do not need to log in to post; postings will appear after a delay for manual spam checking.