Rorty's words, my mouth


For those like Rorty, who wish to explain away phenomenology, a first-person point of view, is (supposedly) a point of view that produces knowledge of
intrinsic, nonrelational properties of mental events. This is partially true, but in painting their primary targets (Nagel, Searle) as concerned with a mysterious form of knowing, they may overlook the actual phenomenological tradition which posits no such thing. From a phenomenological perspective, forms of reference and forms of belief are founded on phenomenological forms of experience. So if we wish to satisfy Rorty and Dennett on their own terms, we must come up with entities like "phenomenal concepts" which are concepts possessed in virtue of "having had an experience." But even this way of painting things is a distraction. To cut right to the heart of the matter, we must argue against Rorty and Dennett by coming up with convincing ways of talking about experience that makes it logically prior to reference and belief.

But what does this involve, and why ought we to do it?

What we are really talking about here is getting the skeptics to accept an ontological category--"experiential," "phenomenal," "qualia," or something like that. We are arguing for a notion of consciousness that is not exhausted by the relations it stands in--a notion of what consciousness is intrinsically.

Intrinsic? Sounds mysterious. Everything is just language anyway. Why posit such mysterious things?

One will be able to defend the claim that there are intrinsic, non-relational features of objects only if one can claim that knowledge of those feature is not the same as knowledge of how to use the words one employs to describe those features.

So now there's a form of knowledge that is, by definition, ineffable? Sounds fishy. When will you realize that these are pseudo-problems? Dennett has already explained that it is enough to explain why there seems to be phenomenology--why it seems as if "there's a difference between thinking something seems pink to you and something really seeming pink to you.

On Nagel's view, Dennett's claim that "there are no qualities, only judgments," is a product of his "Procrustean conception of scientific objectivity." Nagel thinks that a non-Procrustean conception would make room for phenomenological data by allowing for "objective standards that combine the first- and third-person points of view.

Ok, suppose I allow you, as Rorty would, that "qualia" could be a coherent part of a category scheme?

Ah, Rorty is always a lot of talk, but at the end will tone it down and just say:
"To forswear intrinsicality is merely to say that we should replace "intrinsic feature of X" with "feature unlikely to be woven out of our descrpitions of X." And to this I reply, "Ok, but we should actually keep in our category scheme. It's worth having around."

At which point he would undoubtedly appeal to meta-philosophical reasons. Something like, "we should just talk about relieving human suffering. We should stop talking about whether anything is intrinsically worth anything. Such talk creates more problems than it solves."

I'm sure he would, and Nagel would reply by pointing out that
the sources of philosophy are pre-verbal and often pre-cultural, and one of its most difficult tasks is to express unformed but intuitively felt problems in language without losing them.

But we all know from Wittgenstein that it make sense to say that someone is or is not using a concept correctly only against the background of the possibility of agreement and identifiable disagreement in judgments employing the concept. So let's just drop those concepts that lead to undue suffering.

Accepting that claim would mean that "what there is or what is true" is limited to what we "could discover or conceive of or describe in some extension of human language." To believe that is to give up on what Nagel calls "the ambition of transcendence." Nagel thinks that the willingness of recent philosophers (such as Wittgenstein, Ryle, Sellars, Davidson, and Dennett) to renounce this ambition is a sign of spiritual degeneration. Attempts like Dennett's to change the language in order to help us actively forget troublesome old intuitions are symptoms of a childish rebellion against the philosophical impulse itself.

Nagel's ambition of transcendence is not the tough-minded commitment to intellectual honesty he thinks it, but rather a tender-minded yearing for an impossible stability and order--a kind of yearning William James deplored in the opening chapter of his Pragmatism. There is nothing like what Carnap called "the language" and Husserl called "eidetic structures." All of these "pre-verbal philosophical impulses"were supposed to play the role of canon fixer, the sort of role Conan Doyle played for [Sherlock] Holmes.

Indeed, Nagel thinks that the content of some thoughts transcend every form they can take in the human mind. And perhaps this sounds dubious. However, it is worthwhile to keep trying to use language, in a rigorous and systematic way, to account for unformed but intuitively felt problems. So the issue about who is more spiritually degenerate than whom depends on whether you think it more robust to describe yourself in the Darwinian terms that Dewey, Davidson, and Dennett use to describe themselves, or whether you think it more robust to keep you eyes on something on the other side of a gap, the sort of object that is "more" than just a center of descriptive gravity. Nagel's The View from Nowhere is one of the few books that articulates its author's moral sensibility and that recognizes that philosophical argument will sooner or later run up against the limits set by such sensibility. So, like Nagel, I recognize that Rorty, and cynics like him, can reply with equal meta-philosophical force and argue that it is worthwhile and important for human beings to renounce the ambition of transcendence to which Nagel remains faithful. I continue to find inspiration in Husserl for a phenomenologically informed theory of value that could provide, as Rorty would require of it, a very useful way of talking about human progress, value, and truth.


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