Friday, September 28, 2012

Notes on Rorty's Idea of The Contingency of Language as Seen Through Mormon Eyes.

Rorty's view of the contingency of language as presented in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is at first glance problematic for most theists, since Rorty equates belief in God with the belief in a Cartesian reality beyond our direct experience.  And there is a further problem for Neoplatonic theists I think, implied by Rorty's position, which relates to the creation of man ex nihilo, with the whole notion of human freedom.

 If God created us ex nihilo there is no portion of "us" which is beyond God's "programming" and so we are not free, additionally, in the Platonic universe all we can know about reality is shadowy illusions or reflections of reality- not reality itself.  So for Rorty, the issue of contingency of language and the contingency of the self are related- first, language is contingent and self-referential, because words are not things, nor do they "represent" things because there is no way we can get "beyond" our experience of things to what is some how "out there" beyond our perceptions and appearances.  Secondly, what follows is that we ourselves are nothing beyond bundles of "vocabularies" put together by chance and circumstances beyond our control; we are adrift as contingent selves in a contingent world beyond our control.  The only control we can have is if we realize these facts and become a "strong poet"- one who knows that she herself is contingent but yet through through that knowledge, ironically (hence she becomes an "ironist" ) thereby gains the ability to choose her own vocabularies and define herself in her own terms- in essence creating herself in her own image, through her own metaphors.

Further, the lack of understanding of the contingency of language has given rise in the history of philosophy, to the whole discipline called "epistemology" which is what I often post about on this site: - when I say that the only reality we can know is "appearance" and if there is anything beyond it, we cannot know about it. 

As a Pragmatist, Rorty believes that the only "reality" we can know is what we can experience, and so his belief is that Pragmatism has solved the problem that religion and Platonism has created- but where does this leave theistic Pragmatists?  If we hold a Pragmatic theory of truth- can we be theists?  Would theism be viable in any form to one who thinks as Rorty does?  We know of course that William James, one of the founders of Pragmatism had  no problems with theism- but how does that relate to Rorty's view?

Rorty argues convincingly against both the idea of a transcendent God and a transcendent reality in this passage from Contingency Irony and Solidarity: (pages 20 and 21)
These sorts of arguments by philosophers of language and of science
should be seen against the background of the work of intellectual historians:
historians who, like Hans Blumenberg, have tried to trace the similarities and dissimilarities between the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason. These historians have made the point I mentioned earlier: The very idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature - one which the physicist or the poet may have glimpsed - is a remnant of the idea
that the world is a divine creation, the work of someone who had something in mind, who Himself spoke some language in which He described His own project. Only if we have some such picture in mind, some picture of the universe as either itself a person or as created by a person, can we make sense of the idea that the world has an "intrinsic nature."
For the cash value of that phrase is just that some vocabularies are better
representations of the world than others, as opposed to being better tools for dealing with the world for one or another purpose.

To drop the idea of languages as representations, and to be thoroughly
Wittgensteinian in our approach to language, would be to de-divinize the
world. Only if we do that can we fully accept the argument I offered
earlier - the argument that since truth is a property of sentences, since
sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since
vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths. For as long as we
think that "the world" names something we ought to respect as well as
cope with, something personlike in that it has a preferred description of
itself, we shall insist that any philosophical account of truth save the
"intuition" that truth is "out there." This institution amounts to the
vague sense that it would be hybris on our part to abandon the traditional
language of "respect for fact" and "objectivity" - that it would be risky,
and blasphemous, not to see the scientist (or the philosopher, or the
poet, or somebody) as having a priestly function, as putting us in touch
with a realm which transcends the human.

 Implied in what Rorty is saying is that if God is the Neoplatonic God, we could never experience Him, nor could we ever experience "reality" for both reality and God are beyond what we can as humans experience.

All we experience is some sort of shadowy representation of a "reality" far beyond our abilities to perceive or understand, which we can see only through "appearances" and which language somehow ineffably "represents", but of course we can never step out of our world of appearances to check to see if the alleged representation actually "corresponds" to the reality beyond.

But Rorty would say this is not the case.  We do in fact experience reality- what reality IS is human experience- and therefore the supposed reality in which God lives, that ineffable transcendent reality is the illusion and therefore God is dead.  He is not and cannot be a factor in human life, because the world in which he lives is unapproachable to humanity no longer makes sense to humans.  He has become irrelevant to us.  In fact, if such a God and/or such a reality ever could exist, we could not know about it because all we can know is what humans can know.

So is Rorty's argument a good one?

If God created us ex nihilo, and is transcendent, then Rorty's argument is,  I think, a telling one - then there could be no transcendent God and no transcendent reality beyond what we can know and experience.

This is what Rorty, an atheist, is arguing.

On the other hand, if God is immanent, which he would have to be to be and our Father in any real sense,  Rorty can be correct about epistemology, AND  we, theists and especially Mormons, can be right about God-  we can know both God and reality through human experience.  If God, is immanent, he can be seen as our Father and we can, as humans, know him in some sense, and interact with him,  and we can experience his influence in our lives.

But Rorty did not understand that an immanent God was even a possibility.

In Neoplatonism there is no part of us which is uniquely "us"- there is no unique portion of the self which has existed forever independently and co-eternal with God, because God created us out of nothing, and thereby programmed our natures. Human nature is what it is like to be human, and this was totally created by God. 

This has deep ramifications which go far beyond this discussion, but one of them is that in a consistent Neoplatonic view of the world, we can never experience God or his influence because he dwells in a transcendent world far beyond our ability to experience as mere mortals in this shadowy world of illusion. Traditional Christianity has tried to resolve these issues virtually since it's beginning, but unsuccessfully.  You cannot have a Father God interacting with his children who is yet somehow Transcendent and beyond and Other than us in nature.   One need only to read Plato's allegory of the cave for a vivid image of what this world is in that conception.  The bottom line is that we could not, and do not experience "reality"- just a shadowy image of a reality which lies permanently beyond our grasp.  And we could never experience any kind of Theophany- that would be out of the question.  So it would be totally impossible for Joseph, or Stephen in the New Testament for that matter, to have seen God.

In consistent Platonism, Joseph Smith could not have seen God, nor can God speak to our spirits.  God cannot be directly experienced by humans.  A consistent Neoplatonic, transcendent God based view is just incompatible with the idea of a loving father who interacts with his children, hears and answers prayers or wants the best for us.

God cannot be both transcendent and a loving Father.

For God to be a loving father, he must be immanent. This is the revolutionary insight of Mormonism.

This turns Rorty's argument against God on its head.  In fact Rorty is correct that a transcendent God could not interact with humanity- but Rorty never considered the possibility that God could be immanent!  In other words, Rorty had no conception of a God anything like the Mormon God who is in fact a glorified and idealized, perfected human being who can be our "friend" and with whom we have what Rorty would call "solidarity"- with whom we could share a community.
Doctrine and Covenants 93:45
45 Verily, I say unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., or in other words, I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me—
This is not the God of the Neoplatonists, this is an entirely different conception of God- he is our loving Father who can be our "friend", and with whom we are together in the community of humanity, yet of course he is a perfected and idealized human, perhaps infinitely above us, yet in the final analysis, one of us. We are theomorphic men, and he is an anthropomorphic God.

This community of oneness is also described in the Bible itself.
John 17
  20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
 24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

 In a Mormon context this community is, I believe, exemplified both in the idea of exaltation- that we can become like God himself, and in the notion of the Patriarchal Order, the notion that the goal of mankind should be being sealed together into one huge family of Man, with the Man of Holiness, our Father, at its head.

Seeing God as Mormons do, squares Rorty's Pragmatic and Constructivist epistemological  views perfectly with the Mormon view of God.  We are one community tied together in cultures which are formed ultimately by languages and all we can speak about is, obviously what our language allows us to speak about.  There can be no "reality" beyond what we can experience both subjectively (incorporating there the idea of what Wittgenstein would see as "unspeakable") and objectively, in our shared world of language, and those experiences include experiencing God personally and subjectively, which experiences can be defined as "unspeakable".  Those which can be shared, are shared linguistically, those which cannot "be put into words" cannot be shared.

But what of Rorty's notion of extending the contingency of language to the contingency of the self?

Here I think there are some problems.

I think that what Rorty misses is a kernel of "self" which indeed is beyond language- even his notion of the "ironist" implies I think, that indeed there is some such kernel which selects the vocabularies by which she chooses to define herself.  The very notion that I can select my own vocabulary to define myself still implies that there is an "I" who is doing the selecting.

So has the Cogito we thought we threw away sneaked in through the bathroom window? 

I think not.

I think Rorty took it as far as he could, and I think that his notion of a community in "solidarity" still rings true.

I think the solution to this quandary is that our community has always existed, it has just evolved and changed and progressed.  It has always been interacting and evolving.

Asking where it began is like asking where mankind itself began.  Did mankind start with the first primeval life form in some pool somewhere?  Did language start with great apes or with some first creature which could be defined as "human"?  I think the self is both contingent and non-contingent at the same time, from different perspectives.  So ultimately our Nietzschean perspectivism still reigns supreme.

All of life presumes an organism interacting with its environment. Asking which is contingent of those two and which is not, is asking to resolve two different points of view at the same time- and indeed that entire presumption is itself an anti-perspectivist stance.

So again, we are limited by our linguistic contexts.

The answers to these questions, as are the answers to all questions, cloaked in metaphor and what we sometimes call "theory".  Regardless of what you call those answers, they are shared linguistic descriptions formed in a human mind, be it God's Human Mind or someone else's human mind.  And as will all of such questions, some must remain forever unanswered.

But for my money, the best explanation I have found so far is the Mormon explanation which ensures us that indeed we are part of a community and always have been, perhaps even as what Mormons call "intelligences" even before we were God's children

God is immanent and our Father.

God organized us from intelligences, that kernel of "organism" which interacts with "environment" which intelligences were "co-eternal" with him (meaning he was "always" our leader) and we accepted his leadership voluntarily "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7)

So we are both contingent and non-contingent, free and determined, all depending on how you look at it.

As always, it comes down finally to one's linguistic perspective.