Guest Post by Charles Lewis – Rorty as Thersites: A Bibliographical Note

Abstract: In this note Charles Lewis draws attention to an item missing from bibliographies of Richard Rorty, namely a satirical article published under the pseudonym “Thersites Minor” in the journal MLN. The article illustrates Rorty’s amused interest in the antics of contemporary literary theorists.

There is an item that seems to be absent from current bibliographies of the work of Richard Rorty — namely a short article published in the MLN Comparative Literature issue for 1979. The reason, no doubt, is that it was published under a pseudonym — and indeed an appropriate one given Rorty’s satirical intent. It might be regarded as a scurrilous annex to the essay on Derrida that he had published the year before, one that parodies the tortured style of some of the latest literary theorists.

I have found only two references to the article, both of them apparently oblivious as to its true author. One is in a review of Charles Segal’s book Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae, where Carl A. Rubino notes that Segal “chooses a notable series of short texts to head each of his chapters: […] evocative passages culled from Plato, Hölderlin [etc.],” while adding in a footnote:

For a satiric view of ‘liminal quotations’ and other excesses of contemporary criticism, see Thersites Minor, ‘How to be a New [sic] Critic: Metonymic Mumblings or a Generative Grammar [sic] of Apposite Apothegms’ […]. It is a pleasure to report that Segal generally avoids the excesses targeted there.

The article is also included in UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Offprint Collection, MS.C.007 (1939–1994), Box 15, catalogued (amusingly enough) as “Minor, Thersites, undated; Physical Description: 1 item”; on the other hand, three items for “Rorty, Richard” are listed under Box 18.

How do I know that the article is by Rorty? Continue reading

Heidegger on Technology: Metaphysical Not Political

Heidegger is interested in the essence of technology, which he insists is quite different from technological instruments themselves. The essence of technology is the technological understanding of Being, which is exhibited in the overall character of our shared practices for treating things, events, and others in the world as a whole.

Heidegger calls this enframing: the disposition to regard things as disposable resources that play assigned roles in an all-inclusive, impersonal, automatically functioning system.

The very essence of this disposition consists in understanding the world causally, as a system of objects obeying uniform causal laws. Human action too is understood along this line, as a means to cause desired states of affairs in the world. All this, Heidegger says, is rooted in the will to dominate beings and to render the world transparent, predictable, and manipulable. The will to dominate obscures a more important role of human beings, namely to be receivers of understandings of Being.

Heidegger’s concept of the essence of technology is relevant to his larger account of the history of the meaning of Being, according to which, almost from the very beginning, the West concentrated on entities and the causal laws that explained their behavior. This led us to “forget” the more significant question of what it means that entities exist in the first place. The final result – the “end” of the history of Being – is an understanding of Being from which the question of meaning is entirely excluded, in favor of the control of functional processes. The criterion for truth is now technological: knowledge is an element of the ability to function optimally as part of the system as a whole. Continue reading

Progressive Illiberalism and Disciplinary Power

Over the last decade or so, “progressive” activists have exhibited a desire to regulate the personal behavior and values of their fellow citizens. Language, attitudes, expressions, gestures, feelings, and even thoughts are to be policed, with the aim of enforcing principles of conduct established by self-appointed “experts” in the workings of racism, sexism, classicism, ableism, and so on.

Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power might conceivably help us think about the rise of illiberalism on the progressive left. There are at least as many differences as there are similarities, however, between disciplinary power and the regulation of personal behavior pursued by activists today.

What is disciplinary power? Foucault’s view was that after the Enlightenment had undermined the moral authority of religion, modern societies developed professional and academic disciplines that purported to use scientific methods to acquire empirical knowledge of human behavior. These sciences – psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, criminology, medicine – established how human beings normally behaved under various circumstances.

Theoretically, “normal” meant “average” or “typical.” But in practice, “normal” was implicitly taken to mean “good” or “ideal.” This, Foucault argued, made possible a form of oppression that was characteristic of liberal democratic societies: individuals “internalized” the norms established by the disciplines and regulated themselves accordingly. In this way, social scientific “experts” in human behavior played the role of the earlier religious and moral authorities.

The authority claimed by the experts differed from the authority claimed by religion in that the claims of the experts were empirical, not scriptural. The authority of the social sciences depended on the reliability of their methods and practices, and it could therefore be weakened by showing that those practices were not reliable. Foucault attempted to do this by investigating the history and especially the origin of the disciplines, and showing that they were established with the expectation that they would stabilize the “capitalist” economic regime. They were never impartial. From the beginning they were instruments of power, which was ample reason to be suspicious of the scientific validity of their findings and practices. Continue reading

A Brief Note on Philosophy and Rhetoric

In What Philosophers Know (2007), Garry Gutting showed that Quine didn’t demonstrate the truth of his arguments against the two dogmas of empiricism, analyticity and reductionism. Indeed, he hardly argued his case at all:

Quine’s holism, along with his related naturalism and pragmatism, seems supported by nothing more than persuasive rhetoric. His presentation is impressive as a philosophical manifesto or program, but not as a cogent argument for a conclusion. (P. 30.)

Other philosophers agree. Richard Creath says that “there is no explicit argument…. We are left to conclude that the elegance and coherence of his positive views are intended by Quine to be the argument” (p. 30).

Tyler Burdge recognizes that Quine makes arguments, but that those “against the second dogma are unsound” and that “the metaphors, slogans, and observations invoked to recommend them do not … make them cogent.” Quine’s holism “is not argued anywhere in depth,” and “the view rides on the waves of assertion and metaphor” (p. 29).

Gutting adds that “Quine’s critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction is based on unjustified controversial assumptions,” in particular those of Skinnerian behaviorism (p. 22).

This doesn’t mean that Quine’s arguments weren’t important. Gutting quotes Gilbert Hartman: “few philosophers were converted to Quinian skepticism about the distinction at first, but there followed an intense exploration, in which numerous attempts to defend the distinction proved ineffective” (p. 25). The exploration showed that “analytic” could not be defined without using concepts such as “necessary” and “self-contradictory,” but it didn’t show that there was no valid analytic-synthetic distinction.

The episode says something about the philosophical enterprise: it isn’t all about making conclusive arguments. Sometimes philosophy can move forward when someone draws attention to a problem in a way that makes looking into it seem exciting, rewarding, or otherwise attractive. A philosopher can paint a picture of a problem without making an argument, and a good picture can set the stage for argument. Philosophy and rhetoric aren’t necessarily the enemies that Plato made them out to be.

The Blond Beast, Parsed.

In some passages, it seems pretty clear that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is a lion. In others, Nietzsche is referring to the Aryan “conquering races.” Here are the passages with the first kind of blond beast:

At the center of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory; this hidden center needs release from time to time, the beast must out again, must return to the wild – Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this requirement they are all alike.

One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being on one’s guard against it.

The above quotations are from the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay §11.

Another instance is in the Second Essay §17:

I used the word “state”: it is obvious who is meant by this – some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.

The point is that the civilization of the “noble races” of antiquity was a rather thin veneer under which the predatory nature of these peoples was concealed. It couldn’t be permanently concealed, and it occasionally expressed itself openly as an unrestrained will to conquer. This is the real origin of the state: it was an instrument of domination, not a mutual aid society as social contract theorists liked to imagine. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 2.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.


Spontaneity’s Limits: Tragic Counter-Finality.

Spontaneity is a form of agency that’s dependent on the presence of others. In its basic form, this doesn’t necessarily imply acting with others, or collective action; it takes the form of acting on new reasons whether individually or collectively. I take it that what counts as a reason for action is to be broadly construed. It isn’t only a matter of inferences from principles, for example; a reason to act could take the form of an imaginative redescription of the possibilities latent in a situation. Whatever its form, a reason specifies a purpose: action is intelligible only teleologically, for only a purpose can draw together a sequence of acts such that they are understood as one action. This is the “finality” of action. Spontaneity, then, characterizes acts by which agents commit themselves to purposes other than those to which they were previously committed, at either the individual or the collective level.

The problem with individual spontaneity is that it can be rendered “inert” – meaning, I take it, that it can fail to manifest itself, either by being “frozen into routinized or institutionalized forms” or by “outright oppression or by means of a dominating ideology” (30). Under these circumstances, collective action – “a spontaneity that is possible only in the spontaneity of others, in which each serves as the mediating third party to any other two” (30) – is required to alter the institutional conditions responsible for the inertia. The new purpose is now attributed to what Pinkard, following Wittgenstein at this point rather than Sartre, calls a “form of life,” i.e. “a way of being together” or, in Sartre’s own terms, a “praxis.”

Continue reading

Wittgenstein on Absolute Value

Wittgenstein discusses “the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’” in his “Lecture on Ethics.”  He goes on to characterize this as “the experience of absolute safety,” and to associate it with being “safe in the hands of God.”

Wittgenstein then makes the point that the concept of absolute safety is nonsensical. One is safe relative to certain events or certain classes of events, depending on the circumstances. If you’re in your room, for example, you’re safe from being hit by a bus. But there is no possible world in which you are safe from everything.

The concept of absolute safety indicates the concept of absolute value, or actions that have value regardless of anyone’s desires or goals, and this is the mystery. We believe there are actions that are good or bad in themselves, not just relative to some condition. They seem oriented towards another world, one that constitutes a standard against which we should measure this one.

We’d like to put what is meant by absolute value into words, but words only represent what is, not what ought to be. When we try to express what ought to be, therefore, we end up reducing it to a mere state of affairs to which, if we like, we may then attach the label “good” or “bad.” That I regard acts of kindness as intrinsically good is a fact about me and my beliefs, not about what ought to be.

Puzzles like this indicate “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion,” which is “to run against the boundaries of language.” To talk about absolute value is to talk about something that can’t be represented as if it were representable. But, Wittgenstein adds, the fact that ethical and religious talk is nonsense shouldn’t lead us to ridicule those who engage in it. On the contrary, one should try to talk ethics and religion even though the result will be nonsense.

Thomas Cole, Childhood, from The Voyage of Life, 1842.

Continue reading

Technology, Tocqueville, and Freedom

On the technological understanding of being, according to Heidegger, we feel called upon to constantly enhance, optimize, and render ever-more-manipulable everything that exists, which we treat as flexible resources or means to ends. We don’t ask whether enhancing something will enable us to accomplish anything concrete; we’re just constantly on the alert for enhancement opportunities. The same is increasingly true for how we think about the norms that shape human behavior: human beings are the ultimate in flexible resources. There’s a compulsive dimension to our attitude to technology: we upgrade to the next upgrade whether we need to, or not. Technological objects have no enduring value; any given commodity is merely the latest stage of the endless process of perpetual improvement.

Precisely because everything is always being improved, we are haunted by the idea that nothing is as good as it will be. Already in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that Americans were “restless” in the midst of prosperity. This was because the idea of equality, which denies the supreme authority of any one standard of achievement, and suggests that new standards will always continue to appear, further suggests that humankind is indefinitely perfectible – but, since new standards are continually coming into being, what one is progressing towards necessarily remains vague. All one knows is that everything will soon be obsolete. Tocqueville illustrates the point as follows: Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022).

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.


Preface and Chapter 1: Spontaneity and Inertia.

Harry Frankfurt: “It is far from easy to explicate the difference between being active and being passive, and in fact philosophers have for some time generally neglected the task.” (“Identification and Externality,” in The Importance of What We Care About.) But Pinkard is taking it on with the help not only of Sartre but also that of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger, whose thought Pinkard argues is essential to the concept of practical action presented in the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Sartre’s motive in writing the Critique has typically been regarded as political, but Pinkard is interested in the more purely philosophical problems that Sartre felt the need to confront. Unsurprisingly, Hegel and Marx loomed large, but so did the later Heidegger, and they all led Sartre to “rethink … the positions he had staked out early in his career … on meaning and practice” (xi.) More specifically, he was led to move from the standpoint of individual self-conscious subjectivity to that of “a kind of mutual self-relation of agents,” corresponding to Hegel’s transition in the Phenomenology from self-consciousness to spirit, i.e. “the I that is a We, and the We that is an I” (xiv-xv.) This required Sartre to overcome the “dualism between the active and the passive” so as to conceive action otherwise than in terms of “which part produced the other part, or where the ‘meaning’ came from” (xv).

Sartre’s aim in Critique of Dialectical Reason was not only to articulate and overcome the difference between being active (“spontaneity”) and being passive (“inertia”) but also, and relatedly, to establish the concept of a reflexive agent with the ability to take the initiative and innovate – a being in possession of what Hannah Arendt called the faculty of “natality.” Such an agent is understood to be “self-moving” (as opposed to the “inert,” or nature),  “attuned” to a background context, and “embodied,” hence subject to needs for natural or external goods. Continue reading

Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

In Beyond Good and Evil §228 Nietzsche says: “I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious.” What’s so boring about moral philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the fundamental assumption underlying the moral tradition (and the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) is the idea that things ought to make sense. Nietzsche denies this premise. For Nietzsche, the deep truth about the human condition is that, at bottom, it’s senseless and without meaning. This is something, he thinks, we learn not from philosophy but rather from art – above all from ancient Greek tragedy, precisely what Plato, the father of philosophy, abhorred.

Any philosophical doctrine that fails to face up to the deep senselessness of the human condition, Nietzsche thinks, is doomed to superficiality. The moral philosopher is convinced that there are universal principles that ought to guide human conduct, that we can rely on our ability to reason impartially to work out what these are, that we can choose to act in accordance with them, that if everyone does so things should go well for us, and that, as reasonable beings, we should all want things to go well.

This, Nietzsche believes, is a banal view of the human condition, and it’s the moral philosopher’s banality that makes him or her boring. Stories about impartial do-gooders who see one another as equals and treat everyone fairly are sleep-inducing. Far more interesting are stories about people as they are – conflicted, partial, egoistic, ambivalent, given to misunderstandings, and, so far as morality is concerned, as Kenneth Burke put it, “rotten with perfection.”