Perfect Day

Dog walk at 7:30 this morning under a clear, cool sky. Did some chores around the house. Watched the final round of the British Open, which ended dramatically in a playoff. Read some of my Patrick O'Brian novel, then tried to take a nap but couldn't because the dogs kept barking at this & that. Tended bonsai. Made an omelet for dinner: potatoes, snap peas, bit of left over corn, cheese, herbs from the garden. Ate on the deck with Carole, the dogs hanging out at our feet. Beer. Sunlight. A light breeze. I am completely comfortable with Rorty's claim that we human animals make rather than discover the world. At least, if by "world" one understands something like "a network of meanings that make our experience intelligible." If you read Rorty as denying the existence of the physical world, you misread him, though it is an easy mistake, given Rorty's refusal to use the vocabulary of metaphysics:
Some philosophers have remained faithful to the Enlightenment and have continued to identify themselves with the cause of science. They see the old struggle between science and religion, reason and unreason, as still going on . . . These philosophers take science as the paradigmatic activity, and insist that natural science discovers truth rather than makes it. They regard 'making truth' as a merely metaphorical, and thoroughly misleading, phrase.
The quotation is from Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (3), which was published in 1989, but the same sentiment can be found in the introductory chapter of Philosophy and Social Hope, which expands on the distinction between "finding and making" and which explicitly answers the charge of "relativism" often leveled against Rorty and other "postmodernists." Stephen Prickett, from whose book Narrative, Religion and Science, I've taken the quotation above, understands Rorty to be denying that language mediates between human consciousness & the (physical) world, offering this further quotation from Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (11) as evidence:
If we avoid this assumption, we shall not be tempted to ask questions like 'What is the place of consciousness in a world of molecules?' . . . 'What is the place of value in a world of fact?' . . . 'What is the relation between the solid table of common sense and the unsolid table of microphysics?' We should not try to answer such questions . . . We should restrict ourselves to questions like 'Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?' This is a question about whether our use of tools is inefficient, not a question about whether our philosophical beliefs are contradictory.
I am suspicious of Prickett's use of ellipses, but don't have Rorty's text to check. It's better, though, in a sense, because Prickett is so clearly building a case against Rorty's radical distinction between finding and making. Prickett goes on to accuse Rorty of misreading Thomas Kuhn, whose work I know, and Donald Davidson, whom I've never read. To be honest, I am new to Rorty's work as well, but the way I'm reading him, he is bracketing the whole of metaphysics, starting with Plato & "ending" with Hegel. Rorty is not denying the existence of the physical world, as Prickett seems to think, but making the point that all we humans can do is tell stories about the way things appear to us. Rorty would never deny that some of those stories are better & more useful than other stories; but he refuses to get involved with questions that fail to serve human needs. Scientistic philosopher, many scientists, & a great number of the backlash atheists / rationalists now posting on the internet misread "postmodernism" (& Rorty & Foucault, etc. usually without having read them) as making claims about (physical) reality when in fact no such claims are being made. The whole point being that such claims are ungrounded & so cannot be made, except as poetry. It is understandable, of course, that scientists, given the amount of cultural & even epistemological capital that has accrued to them these last couple of hundred years, would find it tough to be reduced to the level of poets, or even historians. Now, back to my perfect day. Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida & the rest of them do not want to deny me the beauty of the afternoon, the light falling through the pines, or even the texture of the rosemary's bark against my skin. Even if I want to contemplate the physiology of skin & bark, reality is preserved. The new philosophy, if we can call it that for convenience, means to call attention to the poetry of perception, the beauty of our tools.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “Perfect Day”

  1. These are useful and important distinctions, even as “religion” and “spirituality” can be distinguished as vessel and substance. There are many ways to carry water, and the stories we tell do indeed make up our subjective realities. Whether such stories, religious or otherwise, intersect somewhere as a higher objective reality beyond our solipsistic perceptions of this world is left for each to discover and decide. I would contend that reason alone does not a full fair picture of human consciousness make. But then, telling that to a poet is preaching – if you will excuse the expression – to the proverbial choir.

  2. Poetry preceded reason, even for a materialist, I’d say. And Rorty explicitly aligns himself with the poets rather than the rationalists.

  3. The myopic nature of pure rationalism makes it difficult for me to understand, e.g. New Atheism ( http://tinyurl.com/22b4fo ), except to conclude that extremely smart people are no more or less exempt from being psychologically impacted by religious hypocrisy, and therefore actually no more likely to behave “rationally” in relationship to their tenets than the religious zealots they denounce.

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