Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Psychoanalyzing Some Philosophizing

The blog “The Joy of Curmudgeonry” has criticisms of Richard Rorty’s philosophy. The blog’s author employs a common technique which is interesting to psychoanalyze. He takes a one or two sentence quote from Rorty and then “refutes” him. This technique is in contrast to the usual critical method of grasping a thinker's overall argument and responding to it. This facile technique is done more with Rorty and, more generally, with people who are strongly antithetical or fundamentally undermining of the critic’s position. Examples I’ve seen of this technique are numerous: several critics’ responses to Noam Chomsky’s radical political critiques; the analytical philosopher Rudolph Carnap’s making the continental philosopher Martin Heidegger look ridiculous by quoting a particularly abstruse passage without any context; Noam Chomsky calling the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.”; several critics of Jacques Derrida.

The critic’s criticism usually has an air of dismissiveness. The opponent is not worthy of consideration because their view is so wrong-headed that it can be disposed of easily. Yet what’s interesting is that the opposite is the case. The opponent’s view is so radical that it challenges the basis of the critic’s worldview and so is profoundly threatening. When the target of the criticism can make a fundamentally opposed worldview plausible and compelling (and I find all the above named thinkers compelling) it relativizes the critic’s worldview. It’s the profundity of the threat and not the foolishness of the thought that causes the threatened critic to act as if their opponent cannot be taken seriously.

If Rorty were as easily dismissable as the curmudgeon of the blog suggests why are twelve of the top philosophers in the world responding to Rorty’s work in the collection Rorty and His Critics? If he is that easily dismissable what is going on in the book? As we might expect from a knowledge of psychoanalysis, the critic’s tone of easy dismissal hides its opposite. In psychology it’s called a reaction formation. We feel and express consciously an emotion opposite to the one we are unconsciously feeling underneath it. A smug confidence in one’s rightness masks the vulnerable fear of a threat.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Rorty and the Need to Tweak

The link between Rorty and non-dual mysticism – the Tao, Buddhist emptiness, Advaita Vedanta, negative theology - is that he’s continually trying to convince us that there is nothing to hold onto. There’s no It. No way in which It really is. No essence. That our words, vocabularies, concepts, or the assumption we have about them, keeps fooling us into thinking we can grasp how things are if we get our words to work, our understandings to cohere.

But, according to him, it’s also not the case that we know for sure that there is no essential nature to things. That would be another metaphysic. He wants us to leave off the search, stop asking the bad philosophical questions. But how to let go?

Rorty is the only philosopher I’ve kept reading over the years and yet he keeps doing the same thing just in different ways. As he said, nowadays he’s just “tweaking” what he’s already written. I keep reading him because I can’t let go of the dream. The dream of finding The Answer, the final resting place, where one doesn’t have to search anymore. Wittgenstein said the goal of philosophizing is to be able to stop philosophizing when you want to. I both believe Rorty that one must let that quest go and, since I keep reading him, obviously don’t believe it. To choose his view and say that’s the way it is is to contradict oneself because you choose to rest and feel sure that there is no surety. To do the opposite and cling to a fundamental understanding and say there is a Way, an Answer, The Truth, is to cling to an ideal that you cannot prove and so believe in that which you cannot show and so, as a rationalist, contradict yourself. The contradiction at the limits of thought.