March 9th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Richard Rorty: Pragmatism and Anti-Representationalism

A man’s maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

PragmatistI used to be a pragmatist. Famous last words. Well in my younger years I used to read the logical-postivists and Analytical philosophers as well. Continental philosophy at that time seemed foreign to my ways of thinking, and seemed to be leading into a realm of pure language, what has now been termed 'the linguistic turn'. Sometimes I go back and think about this part of my life. A guest on a previous post asked if I had any thoughts on Rorty's post-Quine Kuhn/Davidson mashup? Below is a little rendition of past thinking that I have now moved beyond, but fondly go back and remember as the portal onto a younger self struggling with philosophy.

No pragmatist will dispute that there is something beyond our physical being that people have termed 'reality'. What we are saying is that, as humans, we are not separated from that reality in any objective sense of the word, that we are already so connected and part of this continuum that the idea of 'Objective truth' would be to try to distance and separate ourselves from something that we are already so interwoven with that it would be impossible.

The idea of 'Representation' goes back to Kant. "Representation" means that the belief concerning the existence or the attributes of a "thing" in the world is a taking-inward of a substituent of the "thing", of the eidos, the idea, the ousia, the hyle or the sensual components of the thing or object into consciousness. Some part, some constituent or some feature of the object as substitute or "envoy" will be present in or to the subject's consciousness. In the traditional representational model the taking-inward happens through the sense organs and mostly by seeing, where seeing is always "impregnated" by cognition. To say it "in" the ocular metaphor, spontaneity and receptivity mediate the "world" to the "mental eye". What the mental "eye" "sees" is not the world or the thing in itself, but a result of an interaction. The structure and the capacities of the mediators determine what can be "seen" and so the object (or thing) as "seen" is constituted by the capabilities of the subject and by "something" out there. The main point of the transcendental turn was that the origin of knowledge is neither a sensorial taking inward of the outside world, nor an a priori rational construction of it, but a result of the interaction between object and subject, between world and the inseparable receptivity and spontaneity that happens in the gap between the two.

As I understand it Rorty argues, since Plato, philosophers have understood our primary relationship with the world as one of representation. We attempt to represent the world as accurately as we can; the pursuit of truth is based on the hope that we might represent the World As It Really Is, the world in-itself for-us. Representation, Rorty claimed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is a worn-out metaphor, a philosophical position that leads to endless squabbles: if we believe we have represented the world accurately, we fall victim to a blinkered and arrogant dogmatism; the other extreme, the fear that we may never overcome the gap between our subjective minds and the objective world, leads us to epistemological skepticism—the idea that we can never really know anything. Rorty suggests that we replace the idea of representations of the world with the idea of descriptions of the world designed to help us achieve particular, finite purposes. Rather than ask if we are in touch with the way the world really is, Rorty asks if our descriptions and our vocabularies help us complete our projects. This is the pragamatist path...

Rorty sees this break with the idea that reality can be 'represented' as abandoning the correspondence 'theory of truth', which means that we no longer need to insist that truth, like reality is one and seamless. As he states it: "If a true belief is simply the sort of belief which surpasses the competition as a rule for sucessful future action, then there may be no need to reconcile all one's beliefs with all one's other beliefs - no need to attempt to see reality steadily and as a whole (totality, totalist vision) (p. 270)."

For antirepresentationalism, the stance of Rorty, the "causal interaction" of the subject with the ("outside") world, the "coping with the world" is a broader term than the "receptivity and spontaneity" of Kantian thinkers. Antirepresentationalism does not try to see the world as it is, it does not investigate knowledge or accurate representation of reality, since in every statement about the world there is an inseparable "mixture" and "cohabitation" of the subject and the object. That means if we think that we know something about the world, we can never exactly make a distinction, what part of it comes from us and what part comes from the "outside world". Consequently, it makes no sense to make investigations about the epistemological presuppositions of the possibility of knowledge, it makes no sense to research "the idea of knowledge of, or successful linguistic reference to, a reality underlying the appearances that nature presents." Since in the model of Rorty there is no distinction between the objects as they appear and as they are in themselves, it makes no sense in his view to think substantially about the things and consequently Rorty argues for an anti-essential view of the world.

Also antirepresentationalists like Davidson and Rorty tell us we do not need mediation between "minds and the world", between beliefs, sentences and the world. Rorty thinks with Davidson that mind and human being are continuous with the world, we could even say, both philosophers ontologize the interwovenness (the impossible distinction) of scheme and content. Rorty follows from the impossibility of separation of scheme and content, that "philosophically" it makes absolutely no sense to make further investigations of the correctness of our knowledge, of the representative character of our cognitive structure. That is why Rorty rejects the separationist representational model of knowledge and proposes to think of knowledge as a continuous interaction between human beings and the outside world, as a "matter of acquiring habits of actions for coping with reality".

When I was younger I was an avid reader of Analytic and Pragmatist philosophy, but now I have problems with both... but, that is another story.
S.C. Hickman

Nick Land: The Nature of Shadows; or, The Anti-Humanist as Historian of Atrocity

"Sex is the natural in man."
      - Camille Paglia

"Since homo sapiens has prowled the earth, nature has adapted to new shadows."
     - Nick Land

Homo SapiensAt the heart of Nick Land's polemic is a hatred of 'the superstition of self'. He sees in the thought of both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche an unfolding attack upon the humanistic traditions that have centered themselves upon homo sapiens as the center and horizon of all thought and praxis. As he states it: "Nietzsche is perhaps the greatest of all anti-humanist writers. ...his writings attest to the most powerful eruption of impersonality in the Occidental world. ...nowhere outside Nietzsche’s texts is there an antipersonalistic war-machine of equivalent ferocity" (98). [1] Of Schopenhauer he says: "Schopenhauer is the great well-spring of the impersonal in post-Kantian thought; the sole member of the immediately succeeding generation to begin vomiting monotheism out of their cosmology in order to attack the superstition of self" (98).

Land sees both of these thinkers as precursors to a philosophy of difference. In his view "the difference between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is not simply that between thoughts of indifference and difference. It is more a question of phases in the emergent thinking of unilateral or non-reciprocal difference, which departs from the bilateral difference synonymous with ontology" (101). This difference is immanent in its relation between the organic and the inorganic in that "the difference between the two is wholly immanent to the inorganic as primary term" (101). In his view of the libidinal economy of energy he sees the idea of the recurrence of the same as the "impact of undifferentiable zero; the abortion of transcendence" (101). Nietzsche's movement is toward a unilateral, materialist, or genealogical interpretation of difference.

Instead of the Ubermensch (Overman) Land tells us "humanity cannot be exacerbated, but only aborted" (103). He goes on to say: "It is first necessary to excavate the embryonic anthropoid beast at the root of man, in order to re-open the intensive series in which it is embedded" (103). Between Schopenhauer's metaphysical pessimism ('European Buddhism') and Nietzsche's Dionysian pessimism ('exultation of dissolution') we get the motor of nihilism: Christianity - "the great zero, and the impersonal generator of nature and culture in their incompossible consistency" (103-104).

Christian history had one goal, and one goal only: the return to God. With the advent of nihilism that goal was lost, nullified, brought down to the level of shit and waste. All those posthumanists or transhumanists who seek to transcend the human in some Overman, a restoration of teleology, are all marked by that nihilism of production and productivity of the Puritan smile: an ascetic grimace that aligns both capital and industry in a pact to institute a permanent war through peace. This is religions revenge: to move into the zero world immanently and emerge as the terminal phase of the human project toward God as Man; the zero-function. The acquisition of the material forces of the earth as a project in transcendence of the human through a teleological affirmation of Zero. How to get there these posthumanists ask? Land tells us: War. But War is Peace as Nietzche affirms: "You should love peace as a means to new wars. And the short peace more than the long one./I do not advise you to work, rather to struggle [N II 312]." As Land tells it these "are the most profound words in the history of military thought; the libidinal comprehension of peace as a unilateral differentiation from war" (106). After a lengthy discourse on the dark demarcations of war he shows us along with Freud that war is the free-flow fundamental "violence of desire." "Civilization (with its attendant militarism) is war subject to repression, and the energy of war is Thanatos; base hydraulics" (107).

History as the study of atrocity is for the genealogist to gaze into the "buried horror" of the laboratory of human cultures. Land then tells us of those scholars of this strange history, saying,

"Academic prose has the remarkable capacity to plunge one into a sublime dystopian nightmare: is anything this appalling really possible? one asks. What happened to these people? Is it part of some elaborate joke perhaps? Or do they just hate books? ... One only has to read genuine scholarship to be wracked by ardent dreams of incinerated cities." (110)


1. Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (Routledge 1992 )