Friday, January 15, 2021

Guest post by Paul Roth on Neil Gross's Richard Rorty


Paul Roth is distinguished professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Roth has written extensively on the philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of analytic philosophy. His most recent book is The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation (Northwestern, 2019). 
Thank you, Paul, for this substantive contribution. (Interested readers can find further discussion of Neil Gross's sociological treatment of Rorty and the history of analytic philosophy in these earlier posts; link, link.)

BY PAUL ROTH

Born to Run: Reflections on Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

“I am sometime told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. . . . Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.”

Richard Rorty

“Trotsky and Wild Orchids”

Richard Rorty, consummate ironist that he was, doubtless would have found amusing what Neil Gross offers as an account of the development of his (Rorty’s) thought. “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosophy to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. . .. [I]n stressing the role play by self-concept in my account, . . . self-concepts themselves are thoroughly social.” (18) But the shift so characterized cannot plausibly be ascribed to Rorty’s intellectual self-concept. For that would require first situating Rorty as a “technically oriented” analytic philosopher. Absent that, there would be literally nothing for Gross to explain. And this turns out to be a central problem with Gross’s book. For even a casual examination of Rorty’s oeuvre gives lie to thought that his self-concept significantly shifts, much less between the points Gross specifies. Rorty never occupies the initial position Gross ascribes to him.

Rorty’s doctoral thesis was hardly the stuff of “technically oriented philosophy.” Gross acknowledges this. Moreover, what little actual evidence does Gross cite to support his “shift” hypotheses disappears under examination. Consider in this regard Gross’s characterization of Rorty’s now-famous 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [hereafter cited as PMN] in relation to Rorty’s previous writings. “In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal [of PMN] . . . was to undermine the notion that mind is something ‘about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view’”. (18) But what “early analytic work” can Gross be referencing? Try squaring Gross’s remark just cited with one by Rorty from the very first essay anthologized in Consequences of Pragmatism, viz. “The World Well Lost.” Original place of publication? The Journal of Philosophy, then as now one of the highest profile and most prestigious publication venues in the discipline. Original date of publication? 1972. What words does Rorty pen there? “Now, to put my cards on the table, I think that the realistic true believer’s notion of the world is an obsession rather than an intuition. I also think that Dewey was right in thinking that the only intuition we have of the world determining truth is just we must make our new beliefs conform to a vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like.” (CP 13-14) [Note 1] The substance here simply does not differ from what PMN develops at great length. Rather, it plays themes that Rorty emphasizes early to late.

In order to enhance the supposed novelty of the views advocated in PMN, Gross asserts just a few pages later that “It was not in [PMN] but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism.” (21) But this makes no sense. The essays published in Consequences of Pragmatism almost all predate the publication PMN, and typically by many years. Indeed, Consequences of Pragmatism has as its subtitle ‘(Essays: 1972-1980)’! No doubt some of these writings were coincident with the writing of PMN. In any case, Gross’s own citations defy his characterization of Rorty as a devotee of “technically oriented philosophy” in the years prior to the publication of PMN. This bears on what I insist to be the critical point: Rorty was never a practitioner or devotee of “technically oriented philosophy.” His interests are metaphilosophical from early to late.

But as they say on numerous infomercials: Wait, there’s more! As noted above, Gross’s thesis rests on establishing Rorty’s “parting of the ways” with his strategically embrace analytic self-conception. Such a shift in intellectual orientation might plausibly be taken to be fruitfully examined “as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the worthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output.” (234) But for this to be other than a vapid truism, much less an understanding of Rorty’s writings in the 60s and the 70s (the period central to Gross’s argument regarding the shift in his intellectual orientation), Gross must establish that “Accounting for Rorty’s intellectual trajectory thus means understanding not only why, in the 1970s, he became a critic of the analytic paradigm but also why he became a champion of it after leaving graduate school.” (308) But yet another key problems looms into view just here: what is this so-called ‘analytic paradigm’? For it hardly seems fitting to argue about who is or is not one, much less who left the fold or who joined it, without having some principled way of ruling people in or out. This is complicated by the fact that people who were self-described pragmatists, e.g., Charles Morris, saw differences but not gulfs between pragmatism (the view towards which Rorty supposedly shifts) and, e.g., logical positivism, certainly one form taken under any description in the evolution of analytic philosophy. Likewise, neither Quine nor Sellars ever stood accused of having abandoned any analytic paradigm, their criticisms of analyticity and givenness notwithstanding. Quine especially has his own casual way of using the term ‘pragmatism’ as descriptive of his own work. In short, lacking any precise characterization of what counts as analytic philosophy, and so what does or does not qualify one for club membership, arguments such as Gross’s that presume a clear working contrast between “analytic philosophy” and “pragmatism” are doomed to be non-starters.

The quote from Rorty’s review of Cornman in endnote 1 provides a fundamental clue regarding what made Rorty a philosophically compelling figure from the outset. If one wishes to trot out someone who fits the Grossian mold of a hard-headed analytic philosopher of that period, James Cornman would be as good a candidate as any. But does Rorty ever write like that? No! What Rorty does, and precisely what makes him so very, very special, is his ability to read people like Cornman and write about them as only he (Rorty) can. Rorty turns Cornman into a pragmatist manqué. I always warn students when I assign Rorty that one reads Rorty to learn about Rorty, not the person about whom Rorty writes. Rorty’s special genius—and I mean that quite sincerely and not ironically—lies in his ability to pluck from the driest prose nuggets that illustrate points near and dear to Rorty’s heart. In other words, what endeared Rorty to those educated or in the process of being educated into analytic philosophy was not about Rorty as an analytic philosopher, but because of his own special way of reading and writing about standard analytic philosophy. He could make it all seem interesting and relevant again. In this difference between what Rorty writes about and Rorty’s own writing that explains what philosophers heard in Rorty’s voice and so accounts for his early success.

A more general example of how wrong Gross gets things can be found in Ch. 7 of his book, at the point Gross imagines Rorty’s intellectual arc to begin to bend. Gross opines that “Rorty went through a significant transition in the early 1960s: from being primarily a metaphilosopher, as he was at Wellesley, to also contributing substantively to analytic debates.” (184) A page later, Gross attempts to fill out this sketch by insisting that Rorty’s work on mind-body identity and related problems “are best read as a distinct piece of his oeuvre. They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s effort to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment.” (185) Gross also asserts that “it is also apparent that with The Linguistic Turn he threw his hat in with the analysts.” (184, emphasis mine) But the articles on mind-body are of a piece with Rorty’s review of Cornman; they dissolve or dismiss the problems. Moreover, the last quoted remark bears special scrutiny, since it speaks telling against Gross’s grip on his working categories.

I would begin by noting that when first published The Linguistic Turn was not widely reviewed. The Philosopher’s Index as well as a web page maintained on Rorty’s writing reveal only two or three reviews in Anglo-American philosophy journals. While generally favorable, no reviewer reads the volume as some endorsement of linguistic philosophy. Nor should they have. The book bears the subtitle, “Recent Essays in Philosophical Method.” This signals how it connects with Rorty’s lifelong metaphilosophical concerns. Indeed, Rorty entitles his introductory essay “Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy.” NB: ‘Difficulties.’ One might think that Gross would take this to heart, especially with the advantage of knowing how Rorty’s later writings emphasize just these themes, and in light of the professional reception of and hostility to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

What evidence does Gross provide that Rorty at the time of writing the introduction to The Linguistic Turn had “threw his hat in with the analysts”? It consists of a sole quote from Rorty’s introduction to the effect that “linguistic philosophy . . . has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition . . . on the defensive. . . . This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.” (quoted by Gross 184). Gross apparently finds this a wholesale endorsement of linguistic philosophy. This despite Rorty stating at the opening of his “Preface” that “This anthology provides materials which show various ways in which linguistic philosophers have viewed philosophy and philosophical method over the last thirty-five years. I have attempted to exhibit the reasons which originally led philosophers . . . to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” (emphasis mine) Rorty references those classified as “linguistic philosophers” (the volume includes a rather heterodox collection by any standard) in no way that suggests that he identifies with this group. And how could even a causal reader of the introductory essay that follows immediately upon the “Preface” just quoted not fail to note the lead sentence: “The history of philosophy is punctuated by revolts against the practices of previous philosophers and by attempts to transform philosophy into a science”? In the second paragraph, Rorty then writes: “Every philosophical rebel has tried to be ‘presuppositionless,’ but none has succeeded.” About a page later, he observes “It is more interesting to see, in detail, why philosophers think they have made progress, what criteria of progress they employ.” This sets the philosophical stage for the group of thinkers he has collected. In short, Rorty makes no secret of how he positions the people in the volume. “The purpose of the present volume is to provide materials for reflection on the most recent philosophical revolution, that of linguistic philosophy.” Nowhere does Rorty suggest that this revolution has succeeded where the others have failed. Nowhere does Rorty endorse it. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph, Rorty tenders the following characteristic judgment: “Ever since Plato invented the subject, philosophers have been in a state of tension produced by the pull of the arts on one side and the pull of the sciences on the other. The linguistic turn has not lessened this tension, although it has enabled us to be considerably more self-conscious about it. The chief value of the metaphilosophical discussions included in this volume is that they serve to heighten this self-consciousness.” (The Linguistic Turn, 38) This counts as Rorty effort to foster his standing as a hard-headed analytic philosopher? Rorty’s writings from early to late wear their metaphilosophical concerns on their sleeve.

In short, the shift on which Gross predicates his entire analysis simply does not exist. It is not there in the words or the topics on which Rorty writes. Rorty from early to late worries the metaphilosophical questions canvassed in the introduction to that volume. What can philosophy hope to accomplish? Does there exist some special class of philosophical facts, such that philosophical theories can be judged by their relative success in accounting for these? Moreover and with equal consistency, the philosophers who most attracted Rorty—later Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars—are precisely those who cast the most powerful aspersions on the view that there were such philosophical facts or special philosophical methods. Rorty’s nascent doubts and skepticism in this regard did not spring full flower from his head, however present they were from early on. His introduction to The Linguistic Turn as well as the essay collected in The Consequences of Pragmatism powerfully testify to how these questions develop and mature. But he has these characteristic doubts on full display from at least the mid-60s.

How then to understand the place of Rorty in his time? As I have argued elsewhere (“Undisciplined and Punished,” History and Theory (2018) 57:121-136), the interesting and important person with whom to compare Rorty in this specific regard is Hayden White. Why? Both managed to effectively write themselves out of their respective disciplines and to make themselves world-famous, in effect, in the process of becoming pariahs to their fellow professionals. Both sinned against their disciplines by denying disciplinary pretension to timeless norms or some royal road to truth and knowledge. White never held an appointment in a conventional history department once he moved to the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Indeed, the History Department there refused to provide him with a joint appointment. Likewise, once Rorty left Princeton, he never again held a position in a philosophy department. Ironically, Rorty and White finish their academic careers teaching in Comparative Literature at Stanford. Metaphilosophy and metahistory can, it seems, be tolerated nowhere else but in literary studies.

Rorty’s writings do shift, but that change reflects his stated desire to become more of a public intellectual as well as to demonstrate “philosophy by other means.” In this regard, had Gross paid attention to, e.g., how Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity differs in substance and style from PMN and yet represents an important continuation of Rorty’s argument with and against philosophy as currently practiced, he might have learned something interesting about Rorty and his place in the academic constellation.

In his great essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Sellars writes “It is therefore, the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise. . . . To the extent that a specialist is more concerned to reflect on how his work as a specialist joins up with other intellectual pursuits, than in asking and answering questions within his specialty, he is said, properly, to be philosophically-minded.” Rorty remains from beginning to end “philosophically-minded” in just this sense: he kept his “eye on the whole.” And yet none of the foregoing remarks deny a sociologically important dimension to Rorty’s academic fate. But the arc to be followed and that calls for explanation is not the one Gross imagines transcribed in the record. Rather, the issue posed concerns first and foremost just why Rorty and White come to be so shunned by their fellow professionals. Their fates—disciplinary exile--sends a powerful message regarding what questions can or, more importantly, seemingly cannot be broached in polite academic company. Accounting for this remains the key unanswered question, for it stands as a chilling lesson to lesser lights who might ponder raising such issues.

A further and related question concerns just why what Rorty wrote and said resonated so strongly within and without the profession. Almost 50 years on, I still recall being in the audience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when I heard Rorty remark that he regarded philosophy as just a form of kibbitzing. I do not know if this appears anywhere in his writings, but I quote it to this day. I remember too the outrage and disdain his remark incited.

What made Rorty a heroic figure for many of us thus involves the polar opposite of the position that Gross maintains. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that philosophy is just a form of conversation, Rorty raised questions about what philosophy could hope to do that went to the heart of what many of us worried then and now.

Rorty possessed a unique voice—especially eloquent, enviably learned, and remarkably witty. In a sentence or two he could articulate fundamental issues that cut at the very heart of what academic philosophy pretends to. [Note 2] The sociological tale to be told about Rorty concerns how he had the wherewithal to write himself out of a place of privilege. Imagining his career as moving from “hard-headed analytic philosopher” to “leftist patriot” fails even as the crudest caricature of this person and his work. (For more on Rorty’s politics, see my “Politics and epistemology: Rorty, MacIntyre, and the ends of philosophy,” History of the Human Sciences (1989) 2:171-191.) What makes Rorty the person and Rorty’s career so fascinating concerns not how he got to Princeton but his choice to leave.

I both witnessed and read the abuse he suffered for the positions that he maintained. Rorty’s significance lies in no small part in how he remained true to his interests from early to late despite the powerful constraints imposed by conventional academic discourse and the comforts bestowed by a high prestige appointment. He defined himself by walking away from that to which many aspire but very few obtain. To not see the determination and courage that takes constitutes a type of cognitive dissonance, a peculiar tone deafness to a powerful and unmistakable cri de cœur. With regard to the issues that concerned him, Rorty only ever spoke in one way and always in his in own distinctive voice. His passing marks the day the music died.

Notes

1. Lest readers worry that I am “cherry-picking” quotes, consider the following from even earlier piece: “we [can] abandon some of Cornman's terminology and restate what I take to be the essence of his view more informally. . . . Therefore (iv) the pragmatic test Cornman proposes is all that we can have, and all that we need. More specifically, since neither ‘meaning analysis’ nor ‘replacement analysis’ works, we must either adopt ‘use analysis,’ properly supplemented by such a pragmatically justified theory of reference, or admit that there is no rational method of dealing with ‘ontological’ problems. . . . I heartily agree with almost all of this”. (Richard Rorty, "Review of Metaphysics, Reference, and Language, James W. Cornman", The Journal of Philosophy (1967) 64:770-774, 772.) Rorty a technical analytic philosopher of mind? Seriously?

2. A favorite, from his 1979 APA Presidential Address republished in Consequences of Pragmatism: “Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (CP 166)


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Even worse than we thought ...


We have understood for quite a while that there are dangerous anti-democratic forces in America today — hate-based organizations, right-wing militias, anti-government extremists, white suprematists, Proud Boys and Boogaloo provocateurs, and Republican politicians who care only about maintaining their political positions and power. And of course, we have a president who has complete contempt and disdain for the values and institutions of a functioning democracy. But up until now we’ve had a certain degree of confidence in the “guard rails” of our democracy -- right up until January 6. 

On January 6 it became clear that our democracy is even more at risk than all of this suggests. These risks are of course with us every day, and have worsened steadily since 2016. But on January 6 it became clear that there is a much larger army of shock troops ready for the call by the Leader to attack every aspect of our democracy they can reach. There are the extremist groups monitored by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center -- the Three Percenters, the militia groups, the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists. They have not changed their attitudes or purposes, though they have become more bold and visible about their intentions. The insane conspiracy to kidnap and harm the Governor of Michigan seemed vicious but safely on the fringe. Now it seems that these few extremists were just the tip of the iceberg. What has apparently changed is the political world of very large numbers of "ordinary" voters in almost all parts of America. 

This seems almost like a form of collective psychosis -- like a witch craze on a massive scale, immune from normal reality checks. People interviewed at the Capitol after the insurrection -- even people who did not enter the building and probably would not have done so -- continue to defend the "revolution" they see underway in the hands of these white supremacists and violent extremists. The sight of many thousands of angry, shouting Trump-ites in their MAGA caps demanding the annulment of an entirely honest election, and seeing the power of this mob to breach and desecrate the US Capitol — and to see the sinister men in the Capitol chambers in military gear and zip ties evidently hunting for high-value hostages — this is to see the threat to our democracy in a wholly different light. This transforms the violent rhetoric of right-wing social media from theatre to script. And there seem to be tens of millions of Americans who are sympathetic to and supportive of these actions.

We know who is responsible for this vast catastrophe: the president’s lies and repetition of unfounded conspiracies, the members of the GOP who have supported and confirmed these lies, the social media platforms that have turned right wing conspiracies into an infectious disease, and media personalities who have built their careers on this kind of conspiracy mongering. And the result is a very sizable part of our citizenry who are entirely disaffected from the values of our democracy and the legitimacy of our government.

It is clear that the role of the police in maintaining order will be critical in the near future. To say that a democracy depends on the security of a system of law is a truism, and when individuals and groups resort to violence in pursuit of their political goals, it is crucial that there should be effective, controlled, and properly managed police to restrain them. It is a fundamental government responsibility to preserve the safety of the public, including in particular the safety of likely targets of terrorist violence. This means that government buildings — state houses, the Capitol, government office buildings —must be protected. It is therefore astounding that legislators in states like Michigan have so far been incapable of summoning the political will to ban weapons from the Michigan state house — creating the possibility that the next invasion of the state house in Lansing will lead to bloodshed by men armed with semi-automatic rifles. When armed groups threaten to use violence against other citizens, against the representatives of the state, and against our political institutions, it is inescapable that a democracy requires the ability to use police force to defeat that violence. And it goes without saying -- a democracy requires a properly regulated system of policing that assures lawful exercise of force, neutral and unbiased enforcement of the law, and an effective and vigilant commitment throughout the policing hierarchy to controlling the misuse of force by police officers.

This also means appropriate use of intelligence gathering about violent groups and their intentions: when groups announce their intention to attack officials, citizens, or locations, it is a responsibility of law enforcement agencies to gather and assess information about these indications of plans for future action. Here too a democracy requires legal constraints -- which we have in the US system of constitution and law -- but it is frankly incomprehensible that Federal and local police authorities were unaware of threats of violence in the weeks preceding January 6 that were fully visible to a number of domestic terrorism research centers around the country.

Effective policing is a necessary condition for social stability; but it is only a beginning. It is crucial for our country -- leaders, organizations, parties, and citizens -- to regain our footing in a commitment to truth rather than lies, evidence-based assessments rather than conspiracy theories, and a level of toleration and trust that should be the starting point for the great majority of our population. At the moment neither condition is satisfied: the Trump movement is driven by conspiracy theories and lies, and its followers have essentially zero levels of toleration and trust for the other members of our society -- both political leaders and ordinary citizens -- who do not share their worldview. It is crucial to reverse this reality -- and yet it is very hard to see how that is going to happen, when the far right continues to maintain the same lies about corruption, election theft, and betrayal that produced this level of disaffection in the first place.

A very good start would be a breakup of the Republican Party between those Republicans who believe in the conservative values of the GOP and those who wish to continue to espouse far-right, white supremacist and extremist political views. There are clearly a good number of elected Republican officials who would be ready to follow such an initiative towards a re-establishment of a sane conservative political party. Let them stand for their political and social values, and let them speak honestly about the values of our constitutional democracy and the crucial priority of truth in political speech. Conservativism should not be the same as hate, it should not endorse racism, and it should support rather than undermine the values of our constitutional democracy.

A second valuable step would be election reforms that increase voter access and participation, decrease gerrymandering, and institute voting systems that work to decrease the importance of party affiliation and the primary process. Alaska's newly implemented rank-choice voting system is a good example. It is well recognized that our current system of primaries -- within the setting of gerrymandered districts -- favors extreme candidates over more moderate candidates.

There is the deeper question still to be answered: what are the circumstances in the United States over the past several decades that have led to such a dissolution of support and adherence to democratic norms and values within much of our population? Any observer is likely to identify many of the same factors: the facts of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society; growing economic insecurity and inequality for large numbers of people; and the rise of unprincipled politicians on the right who have been willing to use hate-based appeals to generate support for their own political fortunes. It is crucial to rebuild mass support for our multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy, and increasing economic opportunity and justice is one important pathway for doing so.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Vienna Circle in Emerson Hall

image: University of Vienna, 2016

I am enjoying reading David Edmonds' The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, which is interesting in equal measures in its treatment of the rise of fascism in Austria and Germany, the development of the Vienna Circle, and -- of course -- the murder of Schlick. Edmonds' presentation of the philosophical issues that drove the Vienna Circle is especially good. (Here is a link to an earlier discussion of Schlick's murder; link.) 

In addition to the narrative, the book contains some very interesting photographs of most of the participants in the Vienna Circle. One of those is this image, captioned "Otto Neurath chatting to Alfred Tarski". The caption does not include information about date or location.

1939

The photo immediately struck me as familiar. It seemed to be the side entrance to Emerson Hall, home of the philosophy department at Harvard. So I did some searching on the web and found that there was a meeting of the International Congress for the Unity of Science (the descendent of the Vienna Circle), which took place at Harvard September 3-9, 1939. This was the fifth and final congress. And both Neurath and Tarski were in attendance. It seems likely enough, then, that this photo is from the 1939 gathering at Harvard. Here is Gerald Holton's list of the attendees and presenters at the Congress (Science and Anti-Science):

I located a photo taken of that entrance to Emerson Hall just a few years ago:

2017

Here is a version of that image, cropped to roughly the proportions of the 1939 photo. 

2017

I'm convinced -- this certainly looks like the same location to me. Harvard has made some improvements on the entrance since 1939 -- the door is modernized, the lamps have been added, the vines have been pruned, and the handrails have been provided. The shape of the brick columns to the sides of the entrance is visible through the vines in the 1939 photo. I seem to remember luxuriant vines from the 1970s on that face of the building. And indeed, that is true. Other photos of the same entrance from 1973 show the vines are more extensive. (Also there are no handrails.)

But one challenge remains: is it possible to identify other people in the 1939 photo? Here is a possibility: I think Quine is one of the people in the photo. Here is Quine as I remember him from 1973:


But his looks changed dramatically from his 30s to his sixties and seventies. Here is Quine as photographed in the Edmonds book from the 1930s:


Finally here is Quine in a book cover photo, evidently taken in the 1940s:


This looks a lot like the man standing directly behind Tarski in the first photo (above Tarski's head). The giveaway is the pattern baldness visible in the 1939 photo and the book jacket photo. It is hard to be sure, of course, but the similarity is striking.

Are there any other familiar faces in the photo? Carnap was present at the Congress and was close to Quine, but none of the faces I see in the photo look much like Carnap. I am especially curious about the man standing behind Neurath and talking with the person I take to be Quine.

This is all very interesting to me, for a number of reasons. I was a graduate assistant to Quine in his undergraduate course on "Methods of Logic," and I took his course on Word and Object in 1973 or so. It is striking today to realize that Quine in 1973 was closer in time to the Vienna Circle in the 1930s (35-40 years) than we are today to Quine and Goodman in the 1970s in Emerson Hall (45-50 years). In a small way this illustrates a meaningful point that Marc Bloch makes about the philosophy of history: we are connected to events in the past through meaningful chains of relationships with other human beings. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Orwell's study of mentality and culture


George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell's literary commentaries is their honesty, seriousness, and nuance. They are completely fascinating to read. Orwell really wants to get to the bottom of this point or that, whether it concerns Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, or Henry Miller. Orwell was extremely broadly read, both in English literature and European literature more generally. And he has specific, thoughtful reactions to all of it. Moreover, his opinions are non-doctrinaire. Although Orwell brings his own orientation about the social realities of England and Europe and he is always aware of the social conditions of workers and farmers that are often unnoticed in literature, he rejects entirely the cant of English Marxist theory and vocabulary. 

His analysis of Tolstoy's surprising polemic against the literary value of Shakespeare as a playwright ("Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool") is a good example of Orwell's literary imagination. He takes Tolstoy's claims seriously, tries to give a credible interpretation of them, and refutes Tolstoy's central biases against Shakespeare. Likewise, his extensive treatment of Charles Dickens is enthralling -- Orwell finds that Dickens has almost no acquaintance with ordinary laborers in spite of his sympathy for the poor, and that his desire to improve society turns almost entirely upon an exhortation to the rich to be more kind rather than a demand for structural change in society. And his treatment of Kipling -- an author usually dismissed as a pure jingoistic cheerleader for British colonialism -- is quite nuanced.

[Kipling] identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and 'the gods of the copybook headings', as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not 'daring', has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the 'enlightened' utterances of the same period, such as Wilde's epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Literary criticism is one thing; but Orwell has another goal in discussing the published word that has nothing to do with literary values. Rather, in his treatment of popular literature -- penny novels, boys' magazines, murder mysteries, even poetry -- Orwell is interested in discovering something important about the mental worldview of a particular generation. In particular, he is especially interested in the generation of young English men of his own age, born in 1900 or so, living through the Great War, and plunged into World War II, fascism, and totalitarianism. He tries to form a connection between the content, style, and social assumptions of a body of "boy's stories", for example, and the effects these assumptions and styles are likely to have had on the mental frameworks of the boys of a specific generation. He provides a fairly detailed content analysis of these stories and their presentation in the pulp magazines of the period.

Orwell is quite explicit in believing that the earliest influences on the development of a child -- books, stories, comics, postcards -- have a profound effect on their adult sensibilities and imagination. In "Why I Write" he puts it this way:

I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in--at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own--but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.

Take the interesting example of A. E. Housman's Shropshire Lad.

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the SHROPSHIRE LAD by heart. I wonder how much impression the SHROPSHIRE LAD makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever–probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith's 'Love in a Valley', Swinburne's 'Garden of Proserpine' etc., etc. 
It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the EXTERNAL conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman's poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? ("Inside the Whale", 1940)

Or in other words, what can we learn about the mentality of boys and adolescents around the time of the Great War from the resonance and importance of the poetry of Housman for them? Here are the makings of a theory:

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, 'cynical' strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. ("Inside the Whale", 1940)

Now consider an even more interesting influence of words on boys: the adventure stories published for decades in pulp magazines in England ("Boys' Weeklies", 1940). Orwell writes of the news shops where these magazines were sold:

Probably the contents of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks. Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form. Best-seller novels, for instance, tell one a great deal, but the novel is aimed almost exclusively at people above the £4-a-week level. (Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Kindle Edition)

This is Orwell's distinctive insight: the popular literature for boys implicitly records the features of a mentality at a time and place. More exactly, these publications (pulp magazines) both reflect the mental worlds of young boys and shape those mental frameworks; and, in Orwell's view, the shaping of values and social assumptions is quite purposeful on the part of the bourgeois publishers who stand behind these magazines. In order to uncover that mental worldview, Orwell provides an analysis of the whole group of magazines that fill this niche:

Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the GEM, MAGNET, MODERN BOY, TRIUMPH and CHAMPION, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the WIZARD, ROVER, SKIPPER, HOTSPUR and ADVENTURE, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. ... 
Each of them carries every week a fifteen–or twenty-thousand-word school story, complete in itself, but usually more or less connected with the story of the week before. The Gem in addition to its school story carries one or more adventure serial. Otherwise the two papers are so much alike that they can be treated as one, though the MAGNET has always been the better known of the two, probably because it possesses a really first-rate character in the fat boy. Billy Bunter. 

The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the MAGNET and St Jim's in the GEM) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers–Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them–were at Greyfriars or St Jim's long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. And not only the characters but the whole atmosphere of both Gem and Magnet has been preserved unchanged, partly by means of very elaborate stylization.

Here are the main conclusions that Orwell reaches:

Of course no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract. An adventure story must of its nature be more or less remote from real life. But, as I have tried to make clear, the unreality of the WIZARD and the GEM is not so artless as it looks. These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters. They get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them. To what extent people draw their ideas from fiction is disputable. Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and 'advanced' are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood from (for instance) Sapper and Ian Hay. ...

If that is so, the boys' twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional.

Orwell finds that there is a specific social worldview, an ideology, permeating these stories, and that this worldview serves to frame the social and political perceptions of boys as they enter adulthood. Further, he believes that the ideological content is deliberate: 

ALL fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys' fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.

The worldview that is embedded in these stories is one grounded in snobbism, the natural superiority of the wealthy, the inevitability of rich and poor (and winners and losers in society), and the permanence of the current social order. What is unlikely to emerge from such stories is -- rebelliousness, resistance, and rejection of oppression.

And yet -- all of those mental characteristics of rebelliousness and resistance did emerge among some children, soon to be adults, in the 1930s in England -- including in Orwell himself. So at the most, we must regard this "worldview-shaping" power of children's books and stories as being a partial thing, just one of many influences that eventually shape and constrain the imagination and perception of the adult. How would Orwell explain his own escape from the mental constraints of this ideological framework, into the independent-minded socialism that guided his actions for the rest of his life? From the autobiographical essay ("Such, such were the joys", 1947),  published posthumously, the thread of an explanation is visible: "I was always an outsider, I conformed externally but never within myself." He describes his own development in these words in "Why I Write":

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

Isolated, undervalued, lonely; independent, critical, socialist, committed to acting as I think best. The clue seems to be that independence of mind is nurtured by a certain degree of "outsiderness". 

Here is something akin to a manifesto from the same essay:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.

It is striking to reflect that the United States in the 1930s does not seem to have produced its own version of George Orwell -- leftist, independent, honest, anti-totalitarian, and non-ideological. There were Communist intellectuals; but I cannot think of the kind of independent-minded social critic in the United States whose work might be thought to be as original and penetrating as that of Orwell. Why is that? Was there a particular niche for non-conformist intellectuals like Orwell in England that was lacking in the United States in the 1930s? And did that culture persist into the 1950s and beyond? How close to the Orwell example of social criticism does Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath come (both the novel (1939) and  the film (1940))? Are Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Murray Levin, or Noam Chomsky analogous intellectuals on the left?