Saturday, April 14, 2007

Weaving & Re-weaving Webs of Belief: Richard Rorty & Charlotte (Part I of II)

Note: This is the second in a series of posts I hope to do on the philosophy of Richard Rorty, whose works I am currently reading. I previously wrote here about Rorty's approach to civic virtue. What follows is the first of two parts on Rorty's approach to issues of knowledge, rationality, and argumentation. I believe they are highly relevant to many issues addressed in this blog, and reflect my approach to these matters more clearly and concisely than I ever could.

My kids got the latest movie-version of Charlotte's Web in their Easter baskets, so you may forgive me in using my almost constant exposure to this version of E. B. White's classic children's tale as a jumping off point for discussing something supposedly deep like philosophy. It has struck me, both as I watched the film version and re-read White's book (my older daughter has read it recently; I read it last in 1973 or so, but how can one forget it?) how close to Rorty's views on notions of "truth", "belief", "justification", "argument", and "rationality" are the events in Zuckerman's barn. I shall try and be succinct in my summation of Rorty here, so as not to unduly bore anyone. He proposes that the philosophical notions of "truth", of "rationality", are nothing more or less than the words we use to describe what he calls a web of beliefs and desires. Following Donald Davidson, Wittgenstein, and John Dewey, he sees no reason to insist that what we profess to believe either could or should reflect something "real", or that the words we use are somehow made true by something that is not words. Rather, we are participants in a language-game, one in which we are introduced to certain rules and boundaries, and we negotiate with other participants in this game. He views the idea that there is something mysterious or occult about the "language-reality" dichotomy to be question begging. After Darwin, how else could we describe language and thought than as reactions to stimuli in our environment? This is neither controversial nor in need of philosophical unpacking. More interesting than figuring out to how to get "behind" language, or "around" language, or figure out the "one true vocabulary" for describing what is, is the project of describing how different participants in all the variety of language-games interact, and in that interaction, weave and re-weave their webs of beliefs and desires in to wholly new and surprising webs, none of which are predictable within previously understood vocabularies, and some of which might hold the key to something beneficial to us all.

As I hope anyone reading this remembers, Charlotte manages, through her cleverness and Wilbur's earnest good nature, to save the life of a spring pig by weaving words in her web, words which attempt to draw attention to the uniqueness and special nature of Wilbur. Wilbur is no longer just "a spring pig" destined for Christmas ham and winter bacon and sausage, but an individual, "Some Pig", "Radiant", "Terrific", and "Humble". Charlotte manages, merely through the use of words, words woven into a web, to change the perspective of an earthy farmer toward one of his capital assets. Wilbur is saved because, as White says, Charlotte was a good friend and a good writer. New words, a whole new vocabulary for talking about a pig, changed Zuckerman's way of thinking about who and what Wilbur was. There was no "argument" here, no "rational discourse", indeed there was no meeting of the minds, as it were. Rather, Charlotte introduced new and interesting words to Zuckerman who, upon reading them, started to weave these woven words into his own vocabulary, with surprising, and happy (for Wilbur, at least; as a fan of pork steaks and sausage, I might be a bit disappointed) results.

Along with Davidson, Wittgenstein, and Darwin, Rorty also incorporates Thomas Kuhn into his view of the way we think about the world. Kuhn's major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, showed that the "rational reconstruction" model of scientific discovery was sorely mistaken. We do not change the way we think about the world because science somehow approaches the true nature of reality. Rather, we change the way we believe the world is because we invent whole new ways of talking about the world. It is pointless to argue that "Copernicus is right, Ptolemy is wrong"; that is like saying "French is right, German is wrong". They are just two different vocabularies, two different ways of describing the world. We can pride ourselves on having made a "discovery" that is "true" but there is no rational way to make this point. It is an assertion, for which there is no rational reason. In a thousand years, all our verities may seem as absurd as Ptolemaic astronomy and spontaneous generation.

Taking his cue from Kuhn, Rorty sees our ways of changing our minds as a matter not for rational argument, but rather of being introduced to new and interesting words, perhaps even new and interesting sentences, then trying to fit those sentences into the larger structure of sentences that together form the web of our beliefs and desires. When the new structure is complete - saying, for example, "Some Pig" - it may not resemble anything we could have imagined, and it may just open up all sorts of possibilities, not just for us as individuals, but for all of us. That is why it is always impossible to predict, based upon our current understanding of the way things are, how things are going to be, because when change occurs, the whole structure of the way we speak and believe the world is changes; we are no longer participants in our previous language-game, and there is no master linguist who is able to describe the rules for all possible language games. We are the creators of the world, with all sorts of potential, both wonderful and horrible.

While I doubt very highly that White set out to set forth a good example of pragmatist anti-epistemology, his little children's tale demonstrates the power of words to change the world, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small ways, and how, in so doing, it is not so much the world that changes, but our reactions to it, which is all that really matters for us.

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