Saturday, April 28, 2012

Learning To Run Too Early: Notes Toward A Medium Opus III

The worst thing that happened to me as a student as Wesley Theological Seminary was the "A" I received on my paper in my class in Systematic Theology. From the vantage point of two decades' remove, I can honestly say that few things could have been worse for me. Reading the paper, with its far too complimentary professorial annotation of "scholarly" on the front, I know I would create a far different paper now than I did then. I cannot judge the merit of the work too well, but the young man who produced it is all too clear to me now. A combination of personal and other circumstances had combined that long-ago autumn and early winter to make me perhaps one of the most insufferable, egotistical individuals around. Instead of an "A", I think Josiah would have been far better calling me in to his office, closing the door behind me, and saying, "What the hell's wrong with you?"

The assignment was simple enough. We were to write a "creed" then a defense of each article. The paper was supposed to be between 20 to 25 pages, pretty typical for that stage of our education. I began mine with several pages on the first two words in my own creedal statement, "I believe". I find it amusing that I would still do that, even after all these years; I would also say at least similar things regarding the equivocal status of "I" as well as the disputed status of "believe". What embarrasses me more than anything, however, as I read what I wrote so many years ago is the fact that the 26 year old man, so full of himself, so proud of all the things he knew, thinking he'd found his One True Love in life, had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Instead of an "A", I needed a boot, quite firm and hard, perhaps repeated, in my ass. I do hope the statute of limitations on apologies hasn't run out, because I am formally apologizing now to any and all who knew me at the time for being such an insufferable dick.

When I say I didn't understand what I was saying when I wrote about the questionableness of the notion of an "I" who has some independent status that granted it authority any should heed, I rested quite a bit of what I wrote on this thinker I'd encountered for the first time over the previous summer. A professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty had published three short volumes that same year, two collections of essays covering the previous decade as well as a volume integrating his anti-epistemological views and pragmatist ethics, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity*. I distinctly remember not quite understanding what Rorty was trying to say, except in one particular essay that, in many ways, summarizes much of his philosophical project, at least regarding his views on human knowledge and understanding. Entitled "Texts and Lumps", the essay offers the curious and surprising view that the long argument between the natural sciences and humanities over which provides a better understanding of our world was, by and large, an argument over nothing at all. In defense of his position, Rorty drags along none other than Thomas Kuhn. Arguing that Kuhn's view of science renders scientific investigation no different from textual criticism, Rorty sees the two things as not just similar, but the same. Scientists have a lump of stuff on their lab table; they use a variety of tools to figure out what this lump is, how it works, all sorts of things about it. Literary critics and historians and other practitioners of the Geisteswissenchaften have a text in front of them. They have little idea what it might say; therefore they use a variety of tools to understand its subject, its vocabulary, to make sense of this odd thing in front of them. I took this intriguing idea and ran with it, not least because I had doubts going forward whether there was any merit to the theological project. 

Part of Rorty's point was scientists and those in the humanities too often make the category mistake that their unique, methodological approaches are the sole way not only of arriving at something others can call "Truth", but are generalizable beyond the specific cases in which they are employed. Instead, Rorty celebrates the diversity of approaches, while regarding them as qualitatively indistinct, as a way of instilling an ounce of humility in the various intellectual pursuits we human beings enjoy. In an odd way, this seemed to defend doing theology even if, as I was feeling at the time, it had little application even within the Church, let alone outside it. It would be a while before I realized that, right then and there at that moment in time, I shared something with one of the premiere American philosophers of the late 20th century because Richard Rorty had no idea what he talking about. Specifically, his reading of Kuhn is wrong on so many levels, it is almost unrecognizable. Sad to say, my appropriation of Rorty's thesis in "Texts and Lumps" was actually a more fair reading of him than was his reading of Kuhn.

It was three years before I read Kuhn and realized that Rorty was carrying ten pounds of crap in a two pound bag when he wrote about Kuhn. When I returned to Rorty a couple years later, I realized what Rorty's error was. Again, it was similar to my own that fall of 1991 when my head was so big I'm surprised I could make it through doorways: Rorty had misinterpreted Kuhn because he didn't understand him. It would be some time before I realized that summer and fall, and even in to the next spring semester, I was (to borrow a metaphor) fighting above my weight. It was one thing to discover all these wonderful new authors and books and dive in to what I had started to call, in the high spring of 1991, this very long conversation within the Church (another metaphor I still use). It was quite another to think I could join the conversation having learned a few words of this very rich vocabulary called "theology". Furthermore, in my ridiculous, pompous brain, that I could "get" some basic stuff in theology and doctrine meant I could "get" some not-so-basic stuff in related fields like philosophy. Surrounded by people who were encouraging (I am grateful for that), I started to believe some of what they were telling me, not the least being that I was a pretty intelligent guy. It wouldn't be too long before I was brought back down to earth with the rest of humanity (thank God), and realized that, smart or not, I needed to learn to crawl, then stand, then walk, before I thought I could run with some pretty big dogs. That fall of 1991, I thought I was ready for a marathon. In fact, I was barely on my feet, holding on to whatever might be available to keep me from landing on my ass. It is cold comfort to me that I had some good company in not knowing what the hell I was talking about in no less than Richard Rorty.

*In 2007, I read all the Rorty works I own, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature through Philosophy and Social Hope and wrote three posts that are far better summations of his thought than anything I wrote in those dim, dark days after first encountering him. If you care, check them out.

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