Phil Kaveny

The Fiction of Philip Kaveny

Falling on One’s Sword as a Tenure Gaining Strategy

Falling on One’s Sword as a Tenure Gaining Strategy


This is a Philosophy paper which was treated in an intellectually UN charitable way when I was a student some years ago. I contend the paper has merit and I would be delighted at any reactions in the academic or public sphere. The saddest thing about Richard Rorty’s critique of The Enlightenment is that it is a philosophical argument for philosophy’s irrelevance something a bit paradoxical and certainly ironic. That is to say that academic suicide is not exactly survial strategy in the market place of ideas. There are empty offices in philosophy and religious studies all over the academic world which are a proof that we can suppress ourselves, better than any of our oppressors at least in America. Of course there is a bright side to all this in that the cost savings achieved, at least at major  state supported universities  allowed them to pay world class salaries to football coaches, and still leave savings state budgets to expand  incarceration facilities .


Mere Assertability[1]




I thought it might be useful to try applying some of Saul Kripke’s criteria of assertability as an alternative to superlative truth (that is to say truth which exists outside any particular discussion or time or taking place), as he developed them in On Rules and Private Language, to the manner in which Richard Rorty’s depicts human mental process in his ground breaking book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.   For purposes of this discussion, I am granting Rorty his assertion of the non-existence of any foundational truth claims. To put it in other words, I agree to play by Rorty’s own rules. To clarify further for my purposes, and in or classes and discussions, assertability means to say what others will allow to go uncontested.




In an earlier version of this paper, I was overly critical of Rorty in a number of areas. For the present, it is more productive for me to clarify my understanding of his project and attempt to dialogue with his work. However, there is still much to do if we simply ask questions generated from the use Rorty makes of the concepts or philosophers in question.  He uses them to pursue his project which he in own words is both “parasitic” in method and “therapeutic” in intention in that he was to rid philosophy of  centuries old futile problems that make our brains hurt and bewitch our language .[3




For example, on page 26 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty makes the following assertion as he works through the mind body problem.

To put it another way, why should we be troubled by Leibniz’s point that if the brain were blown up to the size of a factory, so that we could stroll through it, we should not see the thoughts?  If we knew enough neural correlations, we shall indeed see thoughts–in the sense that our vision will reveal to us what thoughts the possessor of the brain is having. If we do not we shall not see what is going on, but if then if we stroll through any factory without having learned about the parts and their relations to each other, we shall not see what is going on. Further, even if we could find no such neural correlations, even if the cerebral location of our thoughts was a complete failure, why would we want to say a person’s mental images were non physical simply because we cannot give an account of them in terms of his parts?



One wonders if we were walking down the aisles of a living brain that was as big as a planet how is it we would “see” the neural correlates the mental operations as they were taking place.[4] To say it another way, is this our consciousness that is doing the seeing of the material process of the production of itself? Is our consciousness then indistinguishable from the electro-chemical, quantum, temporal and spatial circumstances of its production? How is that it is both indistinguishable from and still capable of observing itself? To me this is no small problem; rather it is on the magnitude of difficulty equal to directly observing the back of one’s own head without the aid of a mirror.  Clearly Richard Rorty wishes to dispense with any sort of magic using” smoke and mirrors”[5]

Further does he mean to say, even if we cannot find neural correlates, we should not assume their nonexistence simply because we have not found them? It seems to me he wants to have it both ways. If neural correlates can be located in the brain they validate his theory, but if they cannot then they were not important, because something else will validate his agreement, perhaps at a future date.

But this is not Rorty’s most serious problem. It appears to me that the brain he is referring to is some sort of universal brain which then represents all human brains.  Is this a brain upon which we can extrapolate material laws about brain function which at least are not local? Yet Rorty‘s project is to dispense with   the concept of universals. He even argues that the mind fabricates them to house particular instances.  How it is that he allows himself to use a representational mode to describe process, and then de facto postulate entities he wishes to dispense with?  I will readily agree at this point that I am using the argumentative rather than conversational mode to press this point.  Further, at the risk of being philosophically rude, I evoke the “if it walks like a duck argument” to support my contention that Rorty is making use of universals for his own purposes. [6] Of course he might say that he is just making a kind of model or hypothetical case for purposes of conversation. But it does seem to me if one is using a model then the model should refer to something, which then seems to me reopens the entire case of representation.


I am still unsatisfied that anywhere in our readings Rorty has addressed the question, “What is seen and who does the seeing?” Is the seeing subject seeing itself through the observation of its own neural correlations in action? This appears to me to be a strange linguistic construction, to say we see ourselves seeing ourselves[7].  Since, for Rorty, the subject is always a step back from what is being seen, how could it be any other way?  It appears to me that the seeing subject we, seeing itself, seeing, itself quickly slips into unintelligibility through infinite regression, like a hall of mirrors reflecting back on itself infinitely.   Since he seems to ground his position in the idea of our mental processes being material in nature, then seeing must mean that our little neural correlates would then see and recognize that their own operations were identical in every way with the exception of size with those of the planet-size neural correlates, and then we could go on to the next question since this question is now closed and we may proceed with his project.

However, to me, the question still is open. Can Rorty have it both ways? I am not satisfied, because the problem is that he has us start and end at the same place. What he is doing would be subject a similar critique to Wittgenstein’s critique of Saint Augustine’s model of language acquisition. That is to say, he starts with the answer that consciousness is material and there is no mind-body problem.   Because neural correlates, which may be yet to be discovered, and which have an unspecified function yet to be described in their relationship to mental process, are his answer, simply begs the question.

However, I don’t mean to reject, neuroscience which has made great technical advances in the physiology of brain function. Rather, I mean to understand the neural correlates conceptually, rather than in a technical, descriptive, medical sense. Though there have been many advances in neuroscience since Rorty did his work three decades ago those, advances have opened as many questions as they have closed. For example, in the area the study of changing brain function as it adapts to trauma, or even in the areas of both development and aging. I wonder if the thing that Rorty needs most in order to go on is the thing which his system will not allow, some kind of universal brain that  then can be represented as standing for all brains, and then be mapped so we can go on with his project.  The reason he needs a universal brain is so that he can answer my following question,


Well Dr. Rorty just whose brain are you talking about?  Are you talking about the brain of a philosophy professor, a serial killer, a two-year-old? Are you talking about the same brain as Leibniz was speaking of it? Is the brain Leibniz is speaking of about to be taken as standard issue human to all brains? If so, is that because of some essential element of similarity shared by all of them.[8]

It is also not clear to me that he has made the case as to whether or not seeing, and other mental operations, are undistinguishable from other bodily functions except that he contends they are.  Of course brain functions are influenced by other bodily functions, in a special way to produced images.

For example, when  in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Coral, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marlay, the skeptical Scrooge attributes the  appearance of Jacob  Marlay to a bad dream caused by a piece of undigested mutton, making a kind of retroactive causal link. Yes we can grant him bodily-function-effect cognitive process. However, does it follow that therefore the question is closed, and the mind-body problem vanishes into too thin air, if Scrooge takes his Rolaids? Perhaps the philosophical questions like “the mind-body problem,” are just a little too robust to go away with an over the counter non-prescription medication? Perhaps that’s what’s made them problems for so many hundreds of years, and other therapeutic attempts to dispel them.

We have known since the mid-19th century, as a result of British studies on brain injury, that these sorts of injuries (sometimes referred to as insults) impact upon personality and behavior.  Has Rorty taken us any farther in our understanding?  What I find most interesting, and have so far not had any evidences of Rorty addressing, is how do totally materially based cognitive processes operate, even if he ascribes them to community linguistic and social experience? For example, how is it that Scrooge changes his mind and comes to believe Jacob Marley’s assertion that he is who he says he is? Then we ask how is it that Marley comes to relate a cautionary tale of the future to Ebenezer Scrooge.? Do we learn any more about Ebenezer Scrooge’s cognitive process of seeing Jacob Marley’s ghost and attributing it to a piece of mutton?  I believe we do not.

Middle game:  A thought experiment about assertability.

First I will make a hypothetical truth claim that Rorty has not adequately dealt with in his treatment of the mind body problem in a convincing way. However here is my problem:  How am I allowed to make a hypothetical claim of truth since I have agreed to play by his rules which do not allow for truth claims grounded in anything outside of social experience?[9] If, through the scope of our readings and our classroom discussion, and my own background readings in standard reference sources, the scope of Rorty’s project has become apparent in the sense that he wishes to close the door and turn the lights out on a number of contemporary and historical questions within the discipline of   philosophy, the most significant of all of these is to replace truth with “mere assertability” and definitively brand assertability as a social construction dependent on conservational agreement, rather than rigorous inquiry . Well that perhaps is not such a great tragedy, because there are many others that can and will raise issues with Rorty’s project and his use of historical material, and of course I have been introduced to lifetime of questions which I can continue to pursue.


End game

But this is not the most problematic and troubling aspect of Rorty’s project. What he has done is a kind of cost shifting by moving the really big questions out of philosophy.  But, as I read his project, he has signed off on both moral education, and ethics truth, which he now thinks are the purview of literary culture.  From his parochial perspective, literary culture is the province of those similar to himself who then can set the criteria for membership as they wish because no one has an inalienable right, let alone a moral duty, to be part of this conversation.

This is a move which one might expect from the public relations department of a multinational corporation trying to escape the environmental consequences of their actions, by passing the buck to someplace else and labeling the problem what classical economists call an externality. Rorty would do the same by discharging the responsibilities and areas of professional jurisdiction which, by his own assertion, have historically been the responsibility of philosophy.

I argue for maintaining the historical position of philosophy as an outside adjudicator. Rorty’s entire project is to dissolve this position of philosophy as a potential outside adjudicator. I argue from a Hegelian (but not a utilitarian) standpoint for the historical rationality of philosophy being a kind of outside adjudicator in a number of paradigmatic instances.  This position is both rational and real in a Hegelian sense.  For example, do we really want to ask the army to set for us criteria for what is a just war? I suspect they would say that it is their job to fight and win a war.  Would we want the police to decide who is innocent or guilty? I suspect if we asked them they would say that is not their job. I bet they would tell us that their job is to protect the public safety. Do we really want the doctor working on the operating table to decide at that instant who gets an organ transplant?

And finally, as a writer, poet, and artist I would not want to be told that my job was the moral education of young people, when I think that my job is to tell the truth through art, and not one which is socially constructed but rather stands outside of social systems.  Perhaps an artist might even find their role in reporting a found truth at the proper point in time. Like Martin Luther King’s phase from his “letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere”

Forty years later to a generation, we were not used to thinking about things that way. But how do I make these truth claims when at the start of my project I agreed to play by Rorty’s rules? What am I left with in a public sphere of discourse, where like the gunfighter in the western movies I have agreed to check my truth at the door? Now with truth locked up safely I am allowed to enter into polite philosophical conversation. But I am lost. I am used to thinking of truth as the subtle knife which cuts away to the heart of an issue and that answers the questions upon which all depend.

But still I have something.  Now it all seems that it depends on assertability since Rorty does not allow for the existence of what Kripke calls superlative fact (632)[10] in his treatment of Wittgenstein.  Here we owe a great debt to Saul Kripke who has raised an issue arising out of his own work on   Wittgenstein’s extrapolation of rules and which I think applies to Rorty’s project.

Since Rorty privileges Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Heidegger, and positions himself close to them conceptually using their work as part of his therapeutic  project, perhaps Kripke’s insights into Wittgenstein’s  take on truth and assertability will not fit too badly across Rorty’s shoulders, as we deal with social construction as a  limiting factor for truth claims.

“Rather, he simply points out that each of us automatically calculates new addition problems (without feeling the need to check with the community whether our procedure is proper); that the community feels entitled to correct a deviant calculation; that in practice such deviation is rare, and so on. Wittgenstein thinks that these observations about sufficient conditions for justified assertions are enough to illuminate the role and utility in our lives of assertion about meaning and determination of new answers. What follows from these assertability conditions is not that they answer everyone gives in an addition problem is, by definition, the correct one, but rather the platitude that, if everyone agrees upon a certain answer, then no one will feel justified in calling the answer wrong.”[11]


Particularly when we use Rorty’s conversational model of philosophical discourse, my main project will be to deal with some of the structural limitations apparent to me, at least, with Rorty’s approach and which I hope to make apparent to others. Perhaps a general truth is in fact more robust than any of Rorty’s attempts to contain or dissolve it. Perhaps his book Science and the Mirror of Nature and his later work have had the same invigorating effect on others as me. Like Mark Anthony’s “Funeral Oration for Caesar,” perhaps Rorty secretly wished to praise what he seemed to wish to bury. How can we say, well after all he is only the author, and of course the most successfully didactic authors like Wittgenstein and Hume, and even Hegel ,always start with miss direction.


Works Cited or used for Background and Clarification purposes

Honderich, Ted The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York. 2005.

Kripke, Saul.  Naming and Necessity. Harvard U. Press, Cambridge. Mass (1972-80).


_____.”On Rules and Private Language”, (Handout).  Harvard University Press. 1982.   pp 620-638.


Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press. Princeton 1979


[1] In the shorter version of this paper my title was “Assertability”  which I have now  changed to” Mere Assertability/” I will cheerfully  agree that  the second title is more pejorative than the first, and further acknowledge that sometimes, but not always, meaning is socially constructed  positional .Yet sometimes it is in fact my bias that it is not.

[2] For the entire semester I have been trying to get past Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance in order to use the concepts from the game of chess to write about what some might call the language games of philosophy. My latest attempt is do so around structure rather than content. Thus just as nearly every chess game has an opening, middle, and, endgame. I would assert that the same is true for essays. They have an introduction, middle, and a conclusion. In my essay I will re-label these three parts opening, middle, and, endgame.

[3] I will simply note that much of what he would banish, from the parameters of contemporary philosophy, I find attractive, however that may in fact simply be evidence of my lack of familiarity with the historical trajectory of philosophy.  So I will not contest his representation or interpretation philosopher or philosophical school unless I go directly to the text in question, or turn to other authorities as we did in the case of our classroom discussion of Rorty’s representation of Hegel.

[4] The notion of a neural correlate of a mental state is an important concept for materialists, those philosophers and researchers who believe that all mental states are equivalent to brain states. According to strict materialists, all properties credited to the mind, including consciousness, emotion, beliefs, and desires have direct neural correlates. This is also a pragmatic view adopted by a number of scholars. This view frequently depends on considering minds exclusively as sentient knots in nature’s causal net.


[5]  An archaic term used to describe how 19th century magicians perform their tricks in dimly gas lit vaudeville houses according to an oral history interview with Raymond W Dunn 1882-1976.

[6] Lowe Scott. University of Wisconsin Eau Claire talks on Religion in the Peoples Republic of China 2007. “If it is yellow quacks has a beak and web feet it’s a duck.” If Rorty uses concepts that look like separate mind body consciousness, and universals then he is using them against his own rules.

[7] To say he means either someone else’s brain or that we are seeing a hypothetical brain to me only begs the question see endnote 3.

[8] I am in agreement by the way that philosophy could benefit from the conversational mode; I just don’t think it precludes inquiry.

[9] It is my disclaimer that I am only making this truth claim for the purposes of my discussion. In point of fact I think no such thing and feel that his project has an invigorating effect upon all of the areas he has opened for discussion.

[10] On Rules and Private Language: Harvard University Press. 1982) by Kripke, Saul pp 620-638)


[11] Kripke 636.


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This entry was posted on November 26, 2016 by in Academic Paper, Aesthetics, Kaveny, Non-Fiction, Phil Kaveny, Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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