Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: Part III
Although there was considerable joking at the conference in honor of the Richard Rorty Archive about Rorty's comment that "the only wrong with German idealism is idealism," there was also a serious attempt to think about Rorty's place as a teacher of the German philosophical tradition and his sparring with the American Heideggerian Hubert Dreyfus. Two of Dreyfus's former students attended the event, both of whom appear in the clips below from the film Being in the World; they raised philosophical objections to an unthinking embrace of the efficiencies enabled by an online archive.
The University of New Mexico's Iain Thomson was the first to speak. Thomson has described himself as a kind of "coyote" in the philosophical profession, who borrows from both the continental and the analytical traditions. (Thomson and I were actually in the same Derrida seminar on "testimony" in the nineties.)
Thomson's paper, which has already been posted online, opened with a joke about Rorty's name:
I recently discovered that “Rorty” is a British colloquialism meaning “boisterous and high-spirited.” I found this amusing, because Rorty in person was famously subdued and somber, his understated delivery in striking contrast to the dramatic and often polemical content of his claims. Delivered in his slow, deep drawl, Rorty’s polemics were alternatingly infuriating or delightful, depending on one’s preexisting attitude toward whatever Rorty was currently disassembling and reassembling in his own image. Dennett caricatured Rorty’s chimerical, almost oxymoronic style as “firebrand views delivered in the manner of Eeyore.”
He then speculated in "Rorty, Heidegger, and the Danger and Promise of the Technological Archive" about what it meant now that "Rorty the man has disappeared into the archives that preserve his thoughts." Thomson used Heidegger's concept of "enframing" or Gestell in the context of a "living event commemorating the opening of Rorty’s technological archive" to ask a number of questions: "What is the opening of memory? How can memory be opened in a way that remains responsible to that which it remembers? Can technology, which increasingly remembers everything, truly remember anything?"
He also asked if the Rorty archive was made "open to broader technologization," could it be "genuinely responsive to the texture of the text." As he noted Rorty was "not here to answer" or provide the "new and surprising answers of which he was capable."
At this point, Thomson alluded to other "absences felt present here at UC Irvine" by saying that "Derrida thinks of technological archivization in these terms, but rightly complicates any simple dichotomy between the spontaneous, creative response of which living beings remain capable and the automatism typical of the technological reaction." Thomson explicated a passage from Derrida's Archive Fever and argued that it showed that "archival technique" inevitably overflowed "the singularity of the event," because routinization was needed for intelligibility; thus "other is subsumed by order of the same." Thomson explained that we are left with a fundamental paradox: "life must be archived for it to live on," and "yet it ceases to live" once archived.
Thomson asserted that Derrida's philosophy of the archive owed much to Levinas, but that Heidegger would have been a more important reference point for Rorty's understanding of technology: "Returning to Rorty, I shall suggest a more Heideggerian understanding of this danger and promise, one in which 'the final vocabulary' (as Rorty put it) is being rather than alterity—a Levinasian 'metaphor' for which Rorty himself could find no use."
I think none of us would deny that something vital has been lost with Rorty’s disappearance into the archive (even though we have lost less of Rorty than we would have lost without these archives, for which we should thus be grateful). Yet, Rorty himself, when he was able to answer for himself, seemed not to believe that technological archivization carried any inherent danger along with it.
Rorty rejected all such Heideggerian suspicions concerning the nature of technology, almost as if he were rejecting the melancholic implications of his own living voice.
Let me draw on UC Irvine’s on-line Rorty archive and quote from a 3 February 1992 letter Rorty wrote to Alan Rosenberg (a philosopher working on the fraught topic of Heidegger and the Holocaust). In this letter Rorty declares (with typical candor) that: "I can’t really take seriously the notion of “technology” which you and Heidegger share. I can’t help seeing the United States as as much or as little a product of Baconianism, and as much or as little a matter of erecting Gestelle as Auschwitz, and so I have trouble seeing Bacon and the Gestell as more than a neutral background against which various things, good and bad, occur. The whole idea of 'the essence of the West,' as opposed to various good things and bad things about the West, is one I have trouble with."
Thomson described how "Rorty adopts the traditional liberal view of technology as a neutral set of tools that can be used either for good or for ill," which Thomson was reluctant to reduce to the "guns that kill people, people kill people" view of the world. But Thomson also wanted to rebut Rorty's attitude about the "modern control of objects" and the "late modern control of resources." He began so by reminding the audience that Rorty himself listed "Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey" as the "most important philosophers" of his century, although Rorty also reduced Heidegger's ambitious attempt to present an understanding of the history of being as "good Whig history."
Then Thomson reviewed five of the components of this history of being presented by Heidegger: ontological historicity, ontological holism, ontotheology, ontological epochality, and ontological excess. (He also recapitulates some of this history here in an interview that might be more accessible to nonspecialists.) It is the third Heideggerian thesis about "ontotheology" that is central to Thomson's argument. As he put it, "Insofar as we implicitly understand what-is through these ontotheological lenses, not only do we dissolve being into becoming, but we tend to relate to and so transform all entities into mere 'resources' (Bestand), intrinsically-meaningless stuff just waiting to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency."
In this world of online efficiency, "no event is too banal" when "reality is transformed into information."" He derided how such information circulated endless on the web when computer users "blog about it or describe it on Facebook or Twitter." We also embrace a form of living without the Heideggerian awareness of our own mortality, because "we too hope to join it by downloading our neural nets and living on endlessly as our own on-line avatars." (The "informatization of reality" that Thomson describes could also be considered in conjunction with the many forms of misapprehension -- and misreading -- of Katherine Hayles' so-called "posthuman" state, which also has become of interest in anthropological circles of late. See the recent work of Jenny Cool for examples.)
For Thomson, "a truly postmodern understanding requires us to recognize precisely what Rorty resists; namely, that when approached with a poetic openness and respect, things push back against us, making subtle but undeniable claims on us." He insisted that human beings "need to respond creatively to these claims" and see themselves as world disclosers, experience poetic openness, appreciate the texture of the text, and "use technology against technologization." He granted that a number of technologies actually enabled this disclosure. As examples, he listed the camera, the microscope, eyeglasses, the synthesizer, and the word processor of which Rorty was so fond.
In grappling with the "there is nothing but text" argument, Thomson went back to a comparison of Rorty and Derrida.
What Derrida took from his reading of Saussure and Heidegger, Rorty got from reading Quine and Sellars, and Rorty similarly rejected the idea that “philosophy has a prelinguistic subject matter. Here, however, I think both Rorty and Derrida fail to take phenomenology seriously enough.
He challenged Derridians or Rortians to "try asserting that a meaningful relation to the extralinguistic is a myth to a carpenter, a cook, an athlete, a teacher, or a scientist." He also expressed his disapproval of the ending of the Rorty/Putnam debate in which Rorty described science as "a popularity contest."
Although Mark Wrathall agreed with Thomson on a number of points, he presented a different reading of my Facebook friend and philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg. While Thomson's paper referred readers to an "expansion of this point (which I owe to Andrew Feenberg)" to be found in “From the Question Concerning Technology to the Quest for a Democratic Technology: Heidegger, Marcuse, Feenberg,” Inquiry, 43:2 (2000)," Wrathall posed a more direct rebuttal of Feenberg as a way to understand Rorty's legacy. (You can see my write-up of a recent Feenberg talk here.)
Wrathall distributed a handout to review some of the statements that Rorty had made about Heidegger. They included Rorty's characterization that Heidegger's work is "a toolbox containing some splendid things lying next to a lot of outdated junk." (Of course, as Twitter accounts of Wrathall's talk indicated, "if Rorty thinks of Heidegger's philosophy as a toolbox, Heidegger thinks of it as a German luxury sedan.) Rorty also argued that Heidegger's writings served as "the receptacle in which Heidegger deposited the tools that he invented at various times to accomplish one or another project."
According to his own account, Rorty wanted to "keep the plot outline of Heidegger’s history of metaphysics while rewriting its downbeat ending" and "keep selected items of Heidegger’s imagery and jargon while shrugging off his world-historical pretensions." Yet Wrathall argued that there was no legitimate "account of being" that treats a Google search and a religious icon equally.
If Thomson focused on Heidegger's "ontotheology" in his paper, Wrathall made Heidegger's "universal grounds thesis" the central locus of his talk. He defined this thesis as follows: "within each historical age, there is a particular understanding of being in terms of which entities show up as constitutively related to each other in particular ways. Being is universal, meaning it applies to every entity as such. It is total, meaning it also governs the whole coherence of entities as they relate to each other. And it is a ground in the sense that it is on the basis of the specific understanding of being that any particular entity play a role in the world."
Wrathall then reconstructed the argument of "Heidegger’s Paradoxical Ontology of Technology," which Feenberg wrote with Dana Belu.
1. Either all humans are enframed, or at least one human is not.
2. If humans are enframed, then Heidegger himself would be enframed too, and wouldn’t be in a position to formulate a theory of enframing.
3. Since Heidegger did formulate a theory of enframing, it is either the case that at least one human is not enframed (see 4), or the theory is false.
4. If at least one human is not enframed, then there is some entity which does not show up in terms of the unified understanding of being of the age. Therefore, UGT is false.
If Rorty took Heidegger to task for "academic parochialism" -- for paying undue attention to the development of philosophy, often to the exclusion of the ordinary history, then Wrathall wanted to "sketch out how Heidegger would respond to this critique by showing how Heidegger's focus on philosophy and philosophers was always intimately connected with, albeit not identical to, an account of ordinary history," since "for Heidegger there is no overarching metaphorical account" and "metaphysics is the truth about ethics as such." Often this involves "pragmatically dealing with things," since "metaphysics can only be shown about things." In Wrathall's view "the questioning of reflection never becomes groundless" and the universal grounds thesis serves as a "necessary foundation" that is "inviting us to do ordinary philosophy."
Wrathall also acknowledged that Rorty was doing us a service and that "Heideggerians have failed to appreciate the force of Rorty’s challenge" or see it as a "task for thinking." He also insisted that is was important to recognize that "a lot of exegetical work needs to be done" In contrast, he criticized the "empty informal thinking" of Feenberg and Belu who misunderstood Heidegger’s operatic ideology of technology" and failed to see that "universality can be understood in a variety of ways in a variety of dimensions." Not only should universality not be limited in scope to the natural world, but such universality might include the apprehension that more than one world could obtain at the same chronological moment. Unlike the totality imagined in the Feenberg/Belu reading, Wrathall believed that Heidegger made room for other "extopian outsiders" and recognized "different ontological structures for different types of entities" and a more subtle understanding of the distinction between appearance and reality, because "everything shows up as orderable whether it is or not," and "things aren’t actually resources yet." Thus the philosophical understanding of resources could include appearance, reality, actuality, and potentiality.
During the question-and-answer session, Thomson and Wrathall discussed how their experiences working in Heidegger's archive was very different from accessing materials from the Rorty born-digital archive online. They noted that Heidegger had placed no indexes in his books for a reason. Wrathall described himself as "confused" by Rorty's archive and what it hoped to achieve on the level of philosophical understanding. Thomson also mocked some of the meaningless data-mining currently being done in philosophy and gave the example of searching for the term "woman" in Nietzsche's collected works as a way to develop a thesis on his philosophy of gender.