Rorty and the animals

a chapter from The Collective Imbecile by Olavo de Carvalho

“Error speaks with a double voice:one which proclaims the false and another one which denies it. It is a dispute between yes and no, which is called contradiction… Error is not condemned by the mouth of the judge, but ex ore suo” – Benedetto Croce.

“Philosophy originated in the attempt to escape to a world where nothing would ever change. Plato, founder of this area of culture that today we call ‘philosophy’, supposed that the difference between past and future would be minimal.”

That is the beginning of a whole-page article published by Mr. Richard Rorty in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Pauloon March 3rd, 1996. When I started working in journalism thirty years ago, a paragraph like that would be unmercifully deleted by the copy desk, who might even leave a brief and not very polite note to its author, more or less in the following terms: “But how, wise guy, how would Plato wish so anxiously to run away to a world of stability without change, if in this very world he already didn’t see great difference between the past and the future?” Nowadays blatant rubbish is published as a high manifestation of philosophic thought, and nobody from the copy desk comes forward to say that it is not acceptable, not even as an attempt at journalism.

Besides opening his article with evident nonsense, Mr. Rorty still intends to use such nonsense as the basis for conclusions which violate the most elementary historical truth. For he proceeds: “It was only when they started taking history and time seriously that philosophers replaced their former desire to know another world with hopes for the future of this world. The attempt to take time seriously started with Hegel.”

To begin with, it is well known that Plato, as all Greeks, did see much difference between past and future. If the fact of change itself did not seem to be worth of attention to him, he would not have strived to find an unchangeable pattern behind the transitoriness of things. Second, the concern with “the future of this world” was one of the main concerns of the Platonic endeavor, which was rahter the work of a social and political reformer than that of a pure theoretical contemplator.

Third, to date from Hegel the beginning of the concern with History and time is to skip over two millenia of Christianity, a religion which differentiated itself from the Greek world view exactly for its emphasis on the temporal and historic character of human life, what is already very clear in St. Augustine.

Fourth. Why assume there is a contradiction between the concern with History and the will for eternity, when it is exactly the indissoluble union of these two issues that constitutes the basic inspiration for Hegel himself?

Fifth. When Mr. Rorty interprets the will for eternity as an “evasion” or a “flight”, he is just playing upon words and his pun can easily be undone. The impulse to revolutionize the world, to accelerate historical change, with the same verisimilitude, can also be interpreted as a hubris, an alienating agitation, an escape valve in the presence of permanent and inevitable realities, such as death, frailness, ignorance of our ultimate fate, etc. These pejorative interpretations have only a rethorical value, if that much. Taking them for granted and presenting them as unquestionable is not honest at all.

Based on all these premises, Mr. Rorty finishes the overture of his article with the assertion that the joint influence of Hegel and Darwin distanced philosophy from the question `What are we` and turned it into `What can we become´. This rather pompous historical generalization omits from the reader the information that for Hegel both questions were exactly the same (Wesen ist was gewesen ist). Thereby, far from distancing himself from Greek thought, the philosopher from Jena was just providing a logical development to the Aristotelian doctrine of entelechy, according to which essence is not the static form of a being in a given moment in time, but the goal implicit in its development. Furthermore, it omitts the information that Darwin, on his turn, never said a word about ‘What are we’ nor about ‘What can we become’, but was only interested in ‘What we were’. Rorty therefore mistakes the theory of evolution for the evolutionist ideology, which is Spencer’s work and not Darwin’s.

There are so many implied absurdities in a single paragraph that perhaps it is the compressive strength of falsity being rapidly injected in his brains what makes the reader dizzy, incapable of realizing that he is in front of a cheap fraud, disguised as philosophy as a result of pure marketing.

But I do not believe that Mr. Rorty writes this way for mere incompetence. He knows that he lies – and the secret of the awe he arises in hordes of pedantic youngsters consists precisely in the fact that they envy the power of lying well, for they disbelieve in all truth. There are many who dream about being Richard Rorty when they grow up.

But do you really want to know who this fellow is? Do you wish to get an idea of how ridiculous it is to honor him as a great philosopher? Going a bit further than what he said in Folha de São Paulo, let us then follow this brief examination of his more general conceptions.

“Language is not an image of what is real”, assures us Mr. Rorty, pragmatistic and anti-Platonic philosopher. Should we interpret this sentence in the sense that Mr. Rorty calls “Platonic”, that is, as a denial of an attribute to a substance? It would be contradictory: a language that is not an image of what is real cannot give us a real image of its relations with what is real. So the sentence must be interpreted in the pragmatistic sense: it says nothing about what language is, but only highlights the intention of using it in a certain way. The main thesis of Mr. Rorty’s thought is a statement of intention. “Language is not an image of what is real” means exactly this and nothing else: “I, Richard Rorty, am firmly decided not to use language as an image of what is real”. It is an “irrefutable” thesis, as it is not possible to invalidate logically an expression of will. Therefore, there is nothing open for debate: within the limits of decency and of the Penal Code, Mr. Rorty has the right to use language as he wishes.

The problem comes up when he begins to try to induce us to use language exactly as he does. He says that language is not a representation of reality, but rather a set of tools invented by man to fulfill his wishes. But it is a false alternative. A man may well wish to use this tool to represent reality. It seems that this was exactly what Plato wished. But Mr. Rorty denies that men may have any other wishes rather than seeking pleasure and fleeing pain. That some men do say that they wish something else must be very painful to him. If it were not, there would be no valid pragmatistic explanation for the effort he makes to switch the tone of the conversation. Facing the impossibility of denying that those people do exist, the pragmatist may perhaps say that those who seek to represent reality are moved by the wish to flee pain as much as those who prefer to make up fantasies. But this objection will only come to prove, precisely, that we are not dealing with things that exclude each other. The Rortyan alternative is false in its own terms.

Confronting this painful realization, Mr. Rorty alleges his philosophy consists in introducing a new vocabulary, one in which all distinctions between absolute and relative, appearance and reality, natural and artificial, true and false will be abolished. He recognizes he does not have a single argument to offer as a defense of such proposal. As it “cannot be expressed in Platonic terminology”, it is above, or below, the possibility of being proved or refuted. And he concludes on behalf of all pragmatists: – “That is why our efforts at persuading assume the form of a gradual inculcation of new ways of speaking”. Mr. Rorty, therefore, does not intend to convince us of the truthfulness of his thesis: he only intends to “gradually inculcate us” with his way of speaking. Once it is adopted, we will gradually forget to ask if what we speak is true or false. But gradually inculcating others with a linguistic habit, while also placing it beyond the reach of all rational mediation, is sheer psychological manipulation. We leave therefore the ground of philosophical discussion – that rortyism refuses as “Platonic” – to enter the subtle ground of the imposition of a will by the repetition of slogans and by change in vocabulary. That is what George Orwell called Newspeak in his 1984.

This is perhaps the deep and secret reason why – after having declared that men are but pleasure-seeking beasts and after having reduced language to an instrument that stronger beasts use to dominate weaker beasts – Mr. Rorty can still proclaim that “we, the pragmatists, do not behave as animals”, when his discourse seemed to indicate precisely the opposite. Actually, they are really animal trainers. A horse-trainer does not argue with horses, he just uses psychological influence to “gradually inculcate” them with the desired habits.

Like all animal trainers, pragmatists are moved by pious intentions: “What matters to us is inventing means to diminish human suffering”. It is for that noble purpose that Mr. Rorty proposes to abolish the oppositions between true and false, real and apparent, absolute and relative, etc., which make the philosophy students suffer so much, and suggests the universal adoption of the Newspeak. Once adopted this proposal, philosophical debates will not anymore be an uncomfortable clash of arguments and proofs like they used to be, but rather an effort to make the gradual inculcation of new habits in the mind of the audience ever more painless and pleasurable. The new theories will not look for help in the heavy weaponry of logic, but in the delicate tools of marketing, with free samples being given away to newcomers and smiley Playboy bunnies adorning the covers of academic dissertations.

But the decisive contribution of Mr. Rorty to the relief of human suffering is the combat he wages against the idea that life may have a meaning. It is understandable that Mr. Rorty must feel pretty bad in a universe that makes sense – the odd man out, exactly the way a non-pragmatist would feel in a world devoid of any meaning. Yet, Mr. Rorty does not see the least advantage in arguing with those who do not feel as he does. The controversy between the existence and inexistence of an immanent meaning in the cosmos, he says, “is too radical to be able to be judged from a neutral viewpoint.” There is no way to argue: all a man can do is express his will. So again Mr. Rorty’s thesis is a declaration of intention: he, Richard Rorty, will do everything he can so that life will not have any meaning whatsoever. And he does that with extreme competence and dedication. There are those who think that the lack of meaning in life is what makes human beings unhappy1, But Mr. Rorty does not care at all. He supports democratic pluralism, the free expression of all points of view. But the confrontation of points of view, as it cannot be settled by any intellectually valid means, becomes just a competition between wills, one whose outcome will be determined by the pure manipulating ability of the winning party

Those who know Mr. Rorty personally assure us that he is a very nice guy. I believe them. But I doubt he wags his tail. After all, he is not the animal in the story2.

Footnotes

  1. Viktor Frankl, for example, the not sufficiently praised Jewish psychiatrist who, in the hell of concentration camps, discovered that a meaning for life is more necessary to man than freedom itself. Frankl told an American audience: “It was not only a handful of ministries in Berlin that invented the gas chambers of Maidanek, Auschwitz, Treblinka, they were prepared in the offices and classrooms of nihilistic scientists and philosophers, among which there were and there are some Nobel-laureate Anglo-Saxon thinkers. If human life is nothing more than an insignificant accidental product of some protein molecules, it does not matter that a psychopath be eliminated as useless and that many other inferior people share his fate: all this is but logic and consequent reasoning” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). Back
  2. While reviewing the proofs of this chapter, it occurs to me to remind the reader that a proposal such as Mr. Rorty’s contains in itself, along with the refusal of rational proof, a whole army of antibodies against any attempt to refute it in the serenity of an academic discussion. A “gradual inculcation” never clashes directly with arguments, but takes advantage of the moments when its interlocutor is distracted to surreptitiously induce him to change his state of mind. Its modus argumentandi is not the philosopher’s, nor even the rhetorician’s, but that of the neuro-linguistic programmer. It works beneath the threshold of conscience, after having induced its victim to relax its defenses through mild conversation. Against this kind of actuation the only possible defense is to confront the seducer in the ground he has chosen, i.e., that of psychological action. Therefore, it is not a question of arguing, but of unmasking, just like in psychoanalysis. During Mr. Rorty’s visit to Brazil, I was dumbfounded by the incapacity of his audience to notice the difference between argumentation and seduction. If Mr. Rorty himself admits that there is no use in arguing, what could his apparent arguments be if not a diversion, a trompe l’oeil to keep the conscious attention busy while –away from all critical surveillance – the gradual-inculcator discreetly manipulates the bottom of the soul of the distracted interlocutor? But what silly girl would be foolish enough to try to get rid of a seducer by using polite requests that would only prolong the conversation? In order to expel the seducer it is necessary to deny him any hint of nicety right away and for good. Nowadays there are many currents of opinion that prefer psychological influence to logic reasoning. They do not try to win our agreement, but rather to monopolize our attention. By prolonging a conversation that they themselves recognize is not able to reach any intellectually valid results, they gradually surround us with their atmosphere. They do in such a way that, even if we never explicitly agreed with them, suddenly we are speaking their language, thinking according to their categories, judging according to their values, acting according to their rules. That is how they win our most complete obedience in spite of our superficial disagreement. There is no way to confront them except for open manifestations of antipathy in order to make them understand that what separates us from them is not mere intellectual disagreement, but also a categorical moral rejection. In short: we don’t like their conversation. The tone of this book has therefore a prophylactic sense. Back
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