the rise of literary culture
January 20, 2003 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Richard Rorty was written a longish, but accessible essay detailing the progression of the Western idea of "truth". He states that truth, in the redemptive sense, was first interpreted through religion, then philosophy and now literature. The intellectuals are no longer asking what is true, but seeking new ways of understanding the world around us and our place in it. To question truth, one employs logic and belief, but to find new modes of understanding one uses the imagination. "The great virtue of our new-found literary culture is that it tells young intellectuals that the only source of redemption is the human imagination, and that this fact should occasion pride rather than despair."
posted by elwoodwiles (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
thanks elwood, I had missed it -- it's a treat, thanks again
posted by matteo at 7:34 PM on January 20, 2003

The topic was recently discussed in Oxford during a Bernard Williams debate
posted by matteo at 7:39 PM on January 20, 2003

I haven't read the essay yet, but from elwood's synopsis I'm inclined to agree with Rorty. When I was getting my philosophy degree at Kenyon, I kept banging my head against the wall at all the questions-with-no-answers. What is truth? Truth is objective; truth is that-which-cannot-be-known; truth is the noumena, whereas all we can ever perceive is the phenomena. Finally I reached the inevitable conclusion that if you take it as a given that what is true is inherently unknowable, of course we should only concern ourselves with our subjective perceptions and how best to use those to interact with the world. Pass the comics.

By the by, I earned my BA with a paper on the Philosophy of Fiction, and whether or not "Sherlock Holmes is a woman" could ever be true or false. Anybody want to turn this thread into a shockingly boring discussion of their favorite somewhat-ridiculous philosophical questions?
posted by dreamsbay at 8:46 PM on January 20, 2003

But the verdict of the literary culture on this metaphysics was nicely formulated by Kierkegaard when he said "Had Hegel written at the end of his System of Logic 'this was all just a thought-experiment' he would have been the greatest thinker who ever lived. As it is he is merely a buffoon."

Kierkegaard had an amazing sense of humor.
posted by lbergstr at 8:52 PM on January 20, 2003

I've found myself warming to Rorty the more primary sources of his I read and the further I get from reading the various hagiographies and polemics about him. Nonetheless, he's a bit too fond of over-stating relatively trivial points in a grand high-flown rhetorical style.

In brief, this entire essay shortens to: "Normative ethics has now become the province of literature. This is of benefit to both literature and philosophy," with a few dozen references to Heidegger thrown in to impress.

If I had to take issue with it, I'd object to Rorty's contention that all of philosophy has become a literary genre, the unfounded leap he makes. Logic, these days perhaps the central field of philosophical inquiry, is certainly not literary. In fact, most of what he's taking issue with about philosophy are basic ideas in modern logical theory. For example, he rightly condemns the idea that rational thought about life will lead to a single "answer" or set of beliefs. However, this is implicit in logic - the premises from which one obtains one's derivations are themselves arbitrary (merely in the sense that there is no necessity forces a thing to be a premise).

Oh, and before I forget, this quote in incredibly bad faith, considering the rest of the article: "But this substitution is no reason to give up the search for a single utopian form of political life--the Good Global Society."
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:10 PM on January 20, 2003

"Kierkegaard had an amazing sense of humor."

It is amazing if it was humor.

posted by semmi at 10:02 PM on January 20, 2003

To sum up, I am suggesting that we see the literary culture as itself a self-consuming artifact, and perhaps the last of its kind.

The first novelist who claims to have obviated further philosophic inquiry is certainly welcome to consume himself.
posted by eddydamascene at 11:54 PM on January 20, 2003

"We know that we know nothing," they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge -- "There are no absolutes," they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute -- "You cannot prove that you exist or that you're conscious," they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, or a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.
--Ayn Rand (Novelist), Atlas Shrugged
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:35 AM on January 21, 2003

congratulations ayn rand, you've easily dispatched straw-man scepticism.
posted by callicles at 7:23 AM on January 21, 2003 [1 favorite]

It is amazing if it was humor.

I'm not sure what you mean. Kierkegaard was completely serious about Hegel, but he made his point in a very funny way.
posted by lbergstr at 7:50 AM on January 21, 2003

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” --J. M. Keynes. Slaves unwittingly, Keynes implies, via absorption from the zeitgeist that prevailed back when they were still young and trainible.

Now we've got an eminently practical economist who's read as far as Kierkegaard for quotation purposes but who's actually (and lo, unconsciously, via absorption from the zeitgeist of 20-odd years ago) hitched his wagon to a long-dead French lit-crit (not to mention a long-dead Belgique Nazi lit-crit. France surrenders.
posted by jfuller at 9:49 AM on January 21, 2003

I hate to be literal, jfuller, but are you calling Rorty an economist? Do you mean it to be pejorative? And are you suggesting that Rorty, a fan of Harold Bloom, is unconsciously (ha!) a follower of Derrida?
posted by lbergstr at 10:12 AM on January 21, 2003

Rorty is good, but can sometimes lose sight of what he's saying, as with here:

//These artifacts provide glimpses of alternative ways of being human. This sort of culture drops a presupposition common to religion and philosophy—that redemption must come from one’s relation to something that is not just one more human creation, //

But isn't a community an artifact not made by humans? A real community happens and though it can be maintained or destroyed by humans and humans participate in it and make it up, a real community is "above and beyond" human beings much in the same way a God or the Truth might be.
posted by eustacescrubb at 10:33 AM on January 21, 2003

> I hate to be literal, jfuller,

I couldn't possibly have said all that. You must be misreading me.
posted by jfuller at 2:16 PM on January 21, 2003

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