Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

The book’s full title is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Strike the “apricot cocktails” and that pretty well sums it up.

Sarah Bakewell found some fame and fortune with her previous book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I read and enjoyed that one. As usually happens, it made me want to read some of the subject’s writings: the 16th century essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

At the Existentialist Café made me curious about the writings of some of its subjects, but less optimistic about enjoying or even making sense of what they had to say. Reading Bakewell’s descriptions, explanations and quotations of works by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre left me relatively clueless about what reading hundreds of pages of phenomenology or existentialism would be like.

In addition, except for Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, I didn’t find the life stories or idiosyncrasies of these thinkers especially interesting, certainly not as interesting as Bakewell does.

The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism by Carol Rovane

I would have to read this book at least one more time in order to feel confident about summarizing the conclusions the author reaches. However, here’s my impression after reading it once. As I understand her aims, Carol Rovane wants to clearly explain what relativism is with respect to science and ethics, and then determine whether we should endorse relativism with respect to either of those domains.

She begins by criticizing what she calls “the prevailing, consensus view” of relativism, which she says relies on the idea of disagreement. This is the idea that relativism arises “with a certain kind of disagreement that is said to be, first of all, ‘irresoluble’ [i.e. unsolvable], but also, second, ‘irresoluble’ for the specific reason that both parties are right” [15-16]. Rovane prefers defining relativism in terms of alternatives, which may or may not involve disagreement, and which are themselves explainable in terms of “normative insularity”.

According to Rovane, relativists believe that some alternative views in science or ethics are cut off from other scientific or ethical views. Logic neither “mandates, licenses or prohibits” inferences between them, so two people can hold alternative views about science or ethics and logic has nothing to say about the alternatives [94]. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, people can occupy different scientific or ethical worlds. Non-relativists, on the other hand, believe that all truth bearers are logically related, either directly or indirectly. My scientific views aren’t insulated from your scientific views, and your ethical views aren’t insulated from mine. We all occupy the same scientific world and the same ethical world.

Rovane goes so far as to label the non-relativist and relativist positions in terms of how many “worlds” they mandate. What she calls “unimundialism” is the non-relativistic view that there is only one world (in which there is no “normative insularity” between propositions in science or ethics). “Multimundialism” is the relativistic view that there are many worlds (in which there is “normative insularity” between some scientific or ethical propositions). 

I think the conclusion she reaches is that scientific theories apply to a single world, so it’s best not to think of science in unimundial or non-relativistic terms. Reality is one, so alternative scientific theories can’t be equally correct. But unlike scientists, who all study the same world, people grow up and live their daily lives in various social conditions. These social conditions help determine which behavior is morally correct for them. Rovane thinks it’s fair to say, therefore, metaphorically speaking, that people inhabit different ethical worlds depending on their particular social conditions. Hence, multimundialism or relativism is an acceptable view with respect to ethics.

To help justify her relativistic conclusion regarding ethics, Rovane asks us to imagine two women. One woman was brought up in Europe or America and accepts the ethical importance of autonomy, i.e. every individual’s right to make their way in the world according to their own needs and desires while respecting the needs and desires of other people. The other woman was brought up in a village in India and sincerely believes she has an ethical obligation to obey her parents, even if it means giving up her right to pursue her own needs and desires.  Rovane argues that these two women live in very different ethical worlds. Their societies are so different when it comes to ethical issues that each woman is acting ethically, even though they are following very different paths and choosing to obey very different ethical principles.

Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter (2nd Edition)

Leiter concentrates on Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. He argues that Nietzsche was a naturalist and his primary goal was to convince the best people that they shouldn’t pay so much attention to standard Christian morality. It’s time for the revaluation of all values! But only for the strongest, most able among us. They’re the ones who can understand Nietzsche’s message and achieve great things if they can rise above the morality of the herd. Although it’s fine to be nice to less talented people. Just don’t let it hold you back if you’re especially strong and talented.

Dewey by Steven Fesmire

This is an introduction to the philosophy of John Dewey, one of America’s leading philosophers of the 20th century. Dewey was one of the founders of the philosophical movement called “pragmatism”. He also did important work on the theory of education and was a strong voice for progressive political causes.

Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher

It’s mostly a comparison of secular humanism with what he calls “refined religion” — religion that takes ethics more seriously than stories about God. Kitcher argues that humanism can do the job of refined religion. I favor humanism but the book didn’t impress me.