Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From the Apes to the Enlightenment

Lately I've returned to reading Richard Rorty. Rorty is an odd sort of duck; at one time the leading light of analytic linguistic philosophy, he wrote one of the most effective critiques of analytic philosophy yet made, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Incidentally, the reviews at Amazon are revealing; some appreciate it for its analytic clarity, some hate it for relying on Darwinism, and some dislike it for not having appreciated how Hegel and Heidegger and Derrida leave behind the Dewey-Carnap tradition. I find it striking and amusing that creationists and deconstructionists can agree in their vehement rejection of naturalism.)

Since then Rorty's shown himself to be one of the very few hard-core analytic philosophers who find somehing of value in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. At the same time, and unlike Heidegger and Derrida, Rorty takes natural science seriously. His main intellectual hero is John Dewey; although Rorty likes everyone (or almost everyone), Rorty's master thought is to continue doing what he thinks Dewey did. (Needless to say, he's provoked much ire among Dewey scholars.)

In his "Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?" in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 3, Rorty makes the following side comment:

... as good Darwinians, we want to introduce as few discontinuities as possible into the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment. (p. 40)

I find this thought -- "from the apes to the Enlightenment" -- powerful and inspiring. It's a crisp way of indicating the sort of story that I want to tell, drawing on hominid paleontology, archeology, comparative psychology, and "the history of ideas" -- although perhaps I would prefer Foucault's notion of "history of thought" over "history of ideas." (More on that distinction later.)

Telling this story would require further fleshing out the bare bones of Rorty's "non-reductive physicalism" or what McDowell calls (provocatively) "naturalized platonism" -- showing how the space of reasons -- the space of ethics, logic, and science -- evolved from the realm of merely causal bits of nature -- some of them in the shape and form of the Miocene apes that were the last common ancestor of chimps and humans. Like Rorty, I want to show how the emphasis that the Enlightenment rightly places on autonomy and rationality is not incompatible with thinking of humans as, in the words of paleoanthropologist David Pilbeam, "a rather odd African ape."

Both creationists and post-structuralists are betting that these two pictures can't be reconciled, and that the former is irredemiably flawed to boot. So the lines are drawn: fundamentalists of all stripes and colors, together with the post-idealists (post-Hegelians and post-phenomenologists), have declared an opposition to both humanism and naturalism. As for me, I've with Dewey and Rorty; we're looking for the synthesis of Kantian humanism and Darwinian naturalism.


Anonymous Yusef said...

Can you comment a bit on how the synthesis you are looking for would differ from what I take to be D&G's version of this synthesis, which uses their concept of an "organic stratum"?

In the name of God, Mammon, and ambidextrous midgets, if this is an irksome request, let it be. I don't mind any of your deafening silences, and I don't wish to engage anyone at any time who does not wish to be engaged.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

I've always enjoyed Rorty, a naturalist antifoundationalist who as you say takes science seriously and doesn't go off the deep end into sheer perspectivalism. He gets flack from both realists and pomos, so he's probably doing something right.

Your project to naturalize autonomy and rationality is well taken. I look forward to future installments.


Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

7:32 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

I'm already rusty on my D&G, Yusef, so all I can do here is express a worry I have about them.

My worry about D&G is that there's not enough room in their ontology for the things I care about: reason, virtue, and justice. There's a concept of freedom there, but as in Nietzsche and Foucault, the line between autonomy and dandyism is severely and deliberately blurred.

John McDowell introduces the notion of "bald naturalism" to refer to philosophical views which provide no room for deeply normative notions. There's a corresponding problem that's been called "bald aestheticism," in which evaluative notions are disconnected from empirical ones. Self-creation then occurs in a sort of vacuum, disconnected from problems of society and history.

I'm slowly working up an assessment of Nietzsche, and also of Rorty, that there's a tendency towards embracing both "bald naturalism" and "bald aestheticism." This situation is driven by the abence of an account of nature and of normativity which allows us to see how norms have a place within the natural world.

There is a hint of such an account in Nietzsche's notion of "spiritualization." But as with many of Nietzsche's concepts, this notion is not developed into an adequate theoretical articulation.

I do find something along these lines in Adorno, and there may be a way of working up picture on which normative concepts can be seen as sublimations of biological regularities. But what, then, is sublimation?

I would also say, parenthetically as it were, that the presence together of bald naturalism and bald aestheticism in Nietzsche, without a mediating notion, is due to the absence of developed theory of society, and in particular of politics, in his thought.

I'm beginning to worry that the Nietzschean dilemma -- bald naturalism + bald aestheticism -- carries over in D&G as well. Thus one finds a fascinating ontology of material flows and ruptures, and an inspiring aesthetics of self-creation and self-transformation, but nothing which yokes the two together.

I guess I've become, somehow, very Hegelian in old age. No Nietzschean would fret about the absence of mediation!

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"... as good Darwinians, we want to introduce as few discontinuities as possible into the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment. (p. 40)"

I couldn't help wanting to say -

"hey Rorty, don't you know that good Darwinians are nowadays much more comfortable with the existence of discontinuities and that the use of the continuity-concept in evolutionary theory has much less methodological force than it did forty or more years ago?"

This matter of the status of continuity or discontinuity counts in what it seems to me you want to do here, Dr. Spinoza.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"My worry about D&G is that there's not enough room in their ontology for the things I care about: reason, virtue, and justice. There's a concept of freedom there, but as in Nietzsche and Foucault, the line between autonomy and dandyism is severely and deliberately blurred."

What I am thinking about at the present time has to do with the idea of 'event' in DGF, and the way DGF make a strong distinction between the 'event' and various practices, themes, historical currents, etc.

For example, Foucault makes a distinction between the 'event' of the enlightenment, and 'humanism', and wants to think of these in very different ways, and not let them be mixed together any more.

Actually, we have a bit of history here in the blog of discussing what 'event' means - I remember Orla having a few comments about this.

I think that "justice, virtue, and reason" have a status in DGF similar to the status of humanism... are humanisms?

They can't be naturalized as humanisms. (?)

They arise in response to events, and they create other events. Is that this happens the naturalism of these?

Is any of this near where your interests are?

6:18 AM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

I agree that the matter of continuity or discontinuity, and how we assess something as continuity or as discontinuity -- what criteria we appeal to in our assessments -- are where the rubber is going to meet the road. But I'm not so sure if I'd agree that Darwinists have become so much more comfortable with discontinuities now than they were forty-odd years ago. Presumably you're thinking of the theory of punctuated equilibrium and of major macroevolutionary events (mass extinctions, adaptive radiations, etc.)?

As patterns, yes, there's a greater recognition of discontinuity than there used to be. But the explanations of these patterns are continuous, in the sense that, for example, the sorts of genetic differences we see between different species are intelligible in a framework that is continuous with how we understand genetic differences within a species. And punctuated equilibrium is, as Gould and Eldredge have stated many times, not much more than Mayr's theory of peripatric speciation compressed into geological "instants" due to the nature of geological processes.

I honestly don't know what to make of the philosophy of "the event." This is a huge category for Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Badiou, and Zizek. I don't know what to make of it. It is my prejudice that the notion of the event or the rupture was theorized in an intellectual climate in which collective political change couldn't be seen as coming from within the existing system. "May 68" seemed like a rupture of quasi-messianic proportions. But isn't this partly a reflection of how we tell the story of May 68, or how this story is memorialized by the philosophers of 68? I would tend to think that a more precise sociological and historical examination of "May 68" would reveal much more continuity between what happened before, during, and after than the philosophers of the event would have us believe.

It may be helpful to conceptualize some complex systems (such as cells, brains, or societies) as a dialectical relation between structure and event, but I'd be wary of inflating an epistemological heuristic into an ontological doctrine. But one of the ways in which this distinction can be helpful -- and this comes through in Foucault's later work -- is that it can help restore to us a sense of contingency and accident, and so liberate us from the specter of facticity that pervades our conceptual frameworks (e.g. about delinquency, government, and sexuality).

1:01 PM  
Blogger dickie ticker said...

Perhaps the synthesis is already upon us. We don't precisely know which cognitive structures endow us with moral and aesthetic awareness, but in theory they are within the range of scientific investigation, and they are surely the product of evolutionary biology. A theory of human nature is the next step in Darwinian philosophy.

12:10 PM  

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