Thoughts on Geeks, Slackers and Constitutionalists, plus remarks on Rorty, Hacking and truth
Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 11:35AM
Kevin O'Neill

First, I would like to add a few comments to what I told you on Friday. Everything I told you about my early academic career was true, if stripped down to essentials. But I should also add that my version of slackerdom alos included, perhaps anomalously and perhaps not, a serious work ethic. I was a model student during my last two years of undergraduate work and in grad school. I put in a lot of time, never ever had a late assignment, got excellent grades, and so forth. At the same time I always knew that this level of dedication had only a little to do with anything like a Puritan work ethic, even less about being driven by ambition, and much to do with two other factors: ferocious competitiveness which had no real point beyond itself -- I love to win -- and a love for doing what I do well, because there is an aesthetic pleasure in being excellent.

This does not mean that I was not scared some of the time, or that I did not sometimes feel inept, as when I first tried to master the intricacies of symbolic logic or relativity theory. I was inept and I was scared. I feared failure - not an option - as much as anyone else. And I fretted and worried during my qualifying exams, at least the one in logic. 

So, existential and unplanning as I was - and to a great extent still am, in the sense that I spend almost no time plotting my "career" - I am still a person who hyper-prepares classes, takes loads of notes, reads constantly and worries about how every class session goes. 

I assume that all of you are just as complex, filled with what look like inconsistencies, and as unclear about what all This means as I am. Nice. This is what I like about teaching, and about living -- the unexpected, quirky manyness of the world, whether it be people or wombats or dogs or hard drives.

Final note - I am also a Constitutionalist, that is someone who, despite being utterly skeptical of those in power, finally believes that we all still have a responsibility to try to exercise political power. I am one of those people whose study of history(a passion) has led to the assurance that while there are genuinely evil people who conspire to deceive and exploit ordinary people, as the recent economic meltdown makes clear yet again, that there is at least as much misjudgment, self-deception, blank stupidity, lack of imagination and carelessness involved in poor political decisions as there is calculated wickedness. Given this I think we need to struggle to try to have an influence on events because the folks running things most often do not really know what they are doing. On this score I cherish what might seem naivete to others -- another bit of complexity.

This is all I currently want to add on those scores. Now on to Rorty and Hacking. 


The key to understanding Hacking and Rorty on Williams is to understand that, as you will see when you read and digest my Kindle handout, Hacking has two suspicions about Rorty, one well-founded by not fatal, the other based on a misunderstanding, and  that Hacking has something really important and valuable to say that allies him with certain strains of pragmatism, if not with Rorty. 

Let's begin. Rorty's review, like Hacking's, begins with rather than with Williams. Key rhetorical point: both Rorty and Hacking are what Harold Bloom calls "strong poets". This means that both guys have distinct philosophical voices, that they have strongly held positions that are sharply unlike other peoples'. They are not generic. Rorty sees himself as one of the early targets of Williams's book, and he is. Williams ranks Rorty as one of the people he calls "deniers", people who think that it is not possible to achieve truth in any objective sense. He does not mean that deniers deny truth. That is not possible because as we have said over and over in class there is plenty of truth around, most of it completely uncontested. For example, modern cars mostly have automatic transmissions and power steering. This is just true, easy to verify, unproblematic. Both deniers and nondeniers show up at AAMCO or a  cognate when they hear weird noises in their gearboxes and both expect to pay relatively big money to have the problem fixed. Both believe that the problem can be fixed. 

What deniers appear to deny is what Hacking calls truths that are higher on the food chain than "medium-sized dry goods" such as the transmission problem. They deny for example that scientific theories are ultimately true descriptions of the nature of the world, but are, rather, culturally determined constructs that are justifiable because they produce the prediction and control that Rorty thinks scientific theories ought to provide. Second, deniers tend to believe that there is no intrinsic moral sense or moral rules; they think that humans are born without a fixed moral compass or a set of internal guiding principles.

Rorty believes both of these things, but denies that he is a strong denier, and his real argument is that Williams is really closer to being a denier himself than he can ever admit. Rorty says this because he believes that Williams's rejection of Plato's idea of absolute truth, as well as his sympathy with Nietzsche, both suggest that when he claims that truthfulness -- not truth, to which we come back -- has an intrinsic value, his argument does not work at all. Rorty's point is that if Wiliams's defense of truthfulness against the deniers depends on his arguing that sincerity and accuracy (the two components of truthfulness) have  non-instrumental value in making a coherent human society possible, it is difficult to see what "intrinsic" means here. Accuracy and sincerity appear to have enormous practical value in making societies possible. They are good, as truthfulness is good, not because there is some mysterious internal value to being truthful but because truthfulness is entirely justifiable -- it works to make society possible. To try to argue, then, that truthfulness is just valuable because it is valuable in itself does not make much sense.

Hacking's approach also starts with him, in this case not referring to his likeness with Spinoza(arguably one of the very greatest of philosophers) but allying himself in a sense with Harvey who postulated the circulation of the blood and who first argued that the heart is a pump. Rorty aligns himself with a 17th century figure whose claims about the origins of motion branded him an atheist and heretic and Hacking aligns himself with a 17th century figure who did brilliant science that worked and who lied about his single-minded dedication to truth.

Here we see that neither one is  afraid to ally his name with the names of the great and that Hacking has more of a self-deprecating sense of humor and general style - he tells an anecdote in which he is a liar - and Rorty a more well-developed sense of himself as philosophical martyr-hero. 

Hacking's point in the Williams review is that there really are time-tested ways to produce truth, ways that emerge in history and in certain cultural settings and that are in this sense relative, but which also have a deservedly long life because they promote accuracy and sincerity. For Hacking as for Williams there is not one way to produce truth; as you will see Hacking believes that there are styles of reasoning, and in the review he brings up the truth-telling conventions of his and the New Zealand authors' rural upbringing, in these cases emphasizing that in these settings he and she both knew exactly what truthfulness meant even if they did not practice it. His point in these anecdotes is to indicate that here we find well-developed, clearly well-used systems of interrogation, confession and such, as well as obvious limits to the conventions - why tell the truth about stealing a farthing from one's dad when richer kids were given pound notes by their dads for doing nothing? 

In like manner, Harvey knew how to use accuracy and sincerity in his scientific work even if he could not preserve either in his self-congratulatory comments about his own truthfulness. And his methods for insuring the production of truth - the laboratory method in science - persist to this day because, according to Hacking and Williams, these methods guarantee accuracy and insure sincerity. Third, when he references Rameau and Rousseau, the "Moi" and "Lui" represent two different ways or styles of telling the truth about the self. Hacking's point here is that the writing of identity incorporates as part of itself the understanding that selves can be various, that self-presentations can be optional or even misleading, that selves strive for both authenticity and multiplicity. He suggests that the deniers should understand that any "game of truth" that involves selves also necessarily involves the idea that selves presenting themselves are double-valued. It is not that there is no truth about selves but only that the truth about selves must include the self's capacity for self-deception and slipperiness in its self-presentations.

Rorty's response to this might well be that he agrees completely and only disagrees that these styles of reasoning are chosen and survive because they have some level of objectivity or intrinsic "truthiness". Rather they succeed and persist because they pay off; they work, even for kids who misuse them as Hacking did. In the long run his style of assessing moral praise and blame did work because even though he never confessed he knows that what he did was wrong. 

Article originally appeared on philrun (
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