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The Pragmatist´s progress

The pragmatist`s progress

Richard Rorty explains straight off that he had read Foucault’s Pendulum as an anti-essentialist satire which made fun of the way scholars, critics and philosophers suppose they can crack codes, peel away the surface of things to reveal a true, underlying nature. He had read it as a spoof of the metaphor of depth – of the notion that there are deep meanings hidden from the vulgar, meanings which only those lucky enough to have cracked a very difficult code can know. That he was wrong just shows he’s right: having imagined that Eco had abandoned his search for “the code of codes,” he’s like every other obsessive whose reading is just a reflection of his own preoccupations.

Rorty’s general stance is sharpened by a little story he tells, his own march toward Enlightenment, “The Pragmatist’s Progress,” as he calls it. This “semi-autobiographical” narrative doesn’t, naturally, describe the road to Enlightenment, but rather the meanderings that led him to his present pragmatism. It begins when the Seeker after Enlightenment realizes that all the great dualisms of Western Philosophy “can be dispensed with.” Not synthesized or overcome, just forgotten. An early stage of Enlightenment comes when one reads Nietzsche and begins thinking of all these dualisms as just so many metaphors for the contrast between an imagined state of total power, mastery and control and one´s own present impotence. A later, more advanced state is reached when Thus Spake Zarathustra just induces giggles. At that point, with a bit of help form Freud, one begins to hear talk about the Will to Power as just a euphemism for the male´s hope of getting back at Mummy and Daddy.

The “final stage” of “The Pragmatist’s Progress” comes when it’s realized that there was no development in this business at all, that the road to Enlightenment was nothing more than “the contingent results of encounters with various books which happened to fall into one’s hands.” This stage is pretty hard to reach, for one is always being distracted by daydreams. But if the pragmatist can escape from such daydreams, he or she will eventually come to think of himself or herself as, like everything else, capable of as many descriptions as there are purposes to be served. This is the stage in which all descriptions are evaluated according to their efficacy as instruments for purposes, rather than by their fidelity to the object described.

For Rorty, this is just more occultism, and if substance is defined as that which is capable of independent existence, it isn’t surprising to see him allude to Aristotle at this point: Eco for his part does certainly regard the text as an independent entity, with its own intentions and integrity. In his „Intentio lectoris“ – intention of the reader he insists upon a distinction between interpreting texts and using them.

Rorty dismisses this as a pointless distinction, like so many of the other pragmatists. On their view, all anybody ever does with anything is use it. Interpreting something, knowing it, penetrating to its essence, and so on are all just various ways of describing some process of putting it to work.

Rorty was dismayed to find Eco insisting on a distinction between meaning and significance – a distinction between getting inside the text itself and relating the text to something else. This is exactly the sort of distinction anti-essentialists deplore – a distinction between inside and outside.

Still, he offers one of his own: the distinction between using a text for your own purposes, and using it in order to change your purposes - using it to get what you want or to change what you want. The former produces methodical readings of texts, the latter inspired readings - readings of love (or hate) and passion.
The idea that a text could really be about something, that it might tell us something deep about human nature, or the nature of anything whatsoever, “is as bad as the Aristotelian idea that there is something which a substance really, intrinsically, is as opposed to what it only apparently or accidentally or relationally is.”

Reading texts is a matter of reading them in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens. What happens may be something too weird and idiosyncratic to bother with or it may be exciting and convincing. It may be so exciting and convincing that one has the ilusion that one now sees what a certain text is really about. But what excites and convinces is a function of the needs and purposes of those who are being excited and convinced. For Rorty it is simplier to just distinguish between uses by different people for different purposes.

Eco, it seems to Rorty, buys into all sorts of doubtful dualisms, including most importantly here the Kantian distinction between something’s having a value and having dignity. It’s persons who have dignity, and within Eco’s notion of criticism, texts are honorary persons, to be treated with respect rather than merely used. Rorty thinks that a useful distinction can be salvaged from the Aristotelian practice-theory and the Kantian prudence-morality. This is between knowing what you want to get out of a person or thing or text in advance and hoping that the person or thing or text will help you want something different – that he or she or it will help you to change your purposes, and thus to change your life. This distinction, he thinks, helps us to highlight the difference between methodical and inspired readings of text.

Unmethodical criticism of the sort which one occasionally wants to call ´inspired´ is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the critic´s conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes. Such criticism uses the author or text not as a specimen reiterating a type but as an occasion for changing a previously accepted taxonomy, or for putting a new twist on a previously accepted story. Its respect for the author or the text is not a matter of respect for an intentio or for an internal structure. Indeed, ´respect´ is the wrong word. ´Love´or ´hate´ would be better. For a great love or a great loathing is the sort of thing that changes us by changing our purposes, changing the uses to which we shall put people and things and texts we encounter later.

It may seem that in saying all this Rorty is taking the side of so-called ´traditional humanistic criticism´, but this is not his intention. Pragmatists think that nobody will ever succeed in providing a method for reading, but they keep trying to find it. However by that they start to succumbing to the old occultist urge to crack codes, to ditinguish between reality and appearance, to make an individous distinction between getting it right and making it useful.

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