The Meaning of Objectivity

¡°We are the first men who do not possess the truth, but only seek it.¡±

- ¡ª -Nietzsche 1

 

The death of God, although widely noted and generally lamented, has brought with it one problem whose severity seems not to be fully appreciated. Although most agree that His death may well have been a mercy¡ªHe was very old, and visibly suffering¡ªit is not yet clear to all that when He died, He took with Him absolute certainty, and in doing so left us in difficulties. This concomitant is proving troublesome to us mortals, because we have been accustomed since our own creation to plan and justify our actions by reference to Divine commands and teachings; denied that aegis now, we find ourselves acting, when we do act, without the sanction of higher authority.

 

We have today far better evidence for many of our beliefs than our predecessors of a hundred and more years ago had, but we are less sure of anything than they were; all we have is weighty evidence, they had the Word of God. And, already uncertain of anything, we are constantly being exhorted to keep an open mind; to respect the opinions and beliefs of others; to realize that different people see things differently; and even to entertain the possibility that there is, at least for humans, no such thing as the truth. For many people, especially the highly educated, this awareness that we are on our own and working without a net, that any of our beliefs may someday be overturned, that apparently intelligent people reject our most deeply-held values, is simply incapacitating. Asked to act in accord with their own beliefs and values, they wail, ¡°But some people disagree with us! New evidence may turn up! Posterity may laugh at us! We may be shown to be wrong! We can¡¯t be sure that we¡¯re being objective !¡±¡ªand they wring their hands in an ecstasy of self-doubt while fools and thugs have their way.

 

The chief consequence of our loss of divinely sanctioned certitude has not been to make us self-reliant, but to make us timorous and ineffectual; to disable many well-intentioned people, and play into the hands of charlatans. Every modern con man has learned to exploit the worries and inhibitions of the high-minded and those with excessively tender consciences; learned how easy it is, when caught at some wrongdoing, to point out that the law he has been caught breaking contains imperfectly defined terms and unspoken assumptions, that it was framed by fallible people acting in accordance with views that were merely the product of their time, and no longer universally held¡ªwe have seen a president of the United States try to defend himself against a charge of perjury by claiming that is is ambiguous. (It was not for nothing, apparently, that he attended Oxford, home of linguistic analysis; when we supposed that what he was doing in the Oval Office was copulating with his muse, he was actually musing on the copula.)

 

Our nostalgia for God and the apodictic knowledge He afforded us takes the form, today, of a call for objectivity ; a yearning for all the assurance of correctness that the devout enjoyed, but without the embarrassment of involvement in religion. But to impute the attributes of divinity to a being other than God is idolatry, and the modern idolaters have been punished for their sin: they have trapped themselves in a definition of objectivity that makes it not only impossible to achieve, but impossible even to recognize. What it means to the idolaters is a view of things exactly as they really are¡ªa view undistorted by the special angle from which the observer happens to see the object; a view that is not partial, in either sense of the term; a view that some philosophers have called the ¡°God¡¯s eye view¡±¡ªthe one God would have if He still lived.

 

But no rule, no intellectual construct of any kind, can meet that standard. Every attempt to claim for a concrete assertion that it does so is promptly assailed by critics, who bring against it the objection, first, that it is merely a product of human judgment; and second, that if pressed to the limit, it depends on concepts that are themselves imperfectly specified. And if we cannot have perfect knowledge, the critics imply, we can have none at all: because we cannot say exactly when life begins, we cannot agree about abortion; because we cannot say exactly when it ends, we cannot agree about when to switch off the respirator; because we cannot measure anything with absolute precision, we cannot say how long the coastline of Britain is.

 

The notion that because we can have no apodictic knowledge we can know nothing at all is a poison that has infected every corner of the intellectual realm. It is a poison that has been encapsulated in slogan form by that arch-sloganeer, Wittgenstein, in the words ¡° Everything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and about what cannot be said clearly, we must be silent.¡± But t he truth, as we all know and witness in our practice every day of our lives, is that few things worth saying can be said clearly at first, and what we cannot yet say clearly, we must practice saying. But there are many so trapped by what I will call Wittgenstein¡¯s Fallacy that arguing the value of any particular rule with them is futile.

 

Defining Our Way into Perdition and Back Again

 

Since no one can demonstrate to others, or even be sure privately, that his views are objective in this sense, it follows that we are all prejudiced , and our views are open to the deepest suspicions on the part of everyone else, especially those who hold other views. The one thing that is clear about objectivity so defined is that, since it describes a quality that is by definition unobtainable if not nonexistent, it is of no value in characterizing any particular person or view.

 

But this dilemma springs from faulty definition. Rightly understood, the concept of objectivity is far from useless; it stands for a quality that human thought can achieve, and ought always to aspire to. What it properly denotes is a systematic effort to correct for the partiality¡ªagain, in both senses¡ªof our vision. We automobile drivers sit to one side or the other of the cars we drive, our picture of the road ahead conditioned by the angle from which we view it. And yet the experienced driver has no trouble staying in his lane and driving straight down the road, or threading his way through a narrow passage with bare inches of space on either side of his car; he has learned to correct for his own visual ¡®prejudice¡¯, and steer ¡®objectively¡¯.

 

Similarly, an official whose duty it is to select candidates for some form of preferment, such as admission to an elite school, may be charged with, or suspect himself of, irrational prejudice against some group¡ªRuritanians, let us say. That official will be practicing objectivity if, whether or not he believes himself to be guilty as charged, he sets up a screening mechanism to remove from every application submitted to him any indication as to whether the applicant is a Ruritanian.

 

He does not attempt to attain objectivity by taking a course in sensitivity to the foreign-born, or in learning to value diversity; he simply acts so as to defeat any unfair prejudice he may be guilty of, and gets on with his job. The examplar of objectivity is the double-blind protocol employed by those testing a new drug or therapy; they do not protest that, as medical scientists, they could not possibly, consciously or otherwise, distort the results of the trial¡ªthey simply make it impossible for any prejudice to have an effect on the outcome of the trial, and move forward.

 

For the scholar in the humanities, being objective means being as explicit as possible about the assumptions with which he begins a study; citing and quoting his sources accurately; and exposing his reasoning completely. Having done this, the scholar has attained objectivity¡ªhe may not have attained truth , but that¡¯s not what objectivity promises; all it does mean is behaving in such a way as to help expose your own errors if you have committed any, and defeat your own bias if you¡¯re guilty of any. In short, just as ¡®random number¡¯ denotes not a special kind of number, but simply a number produced by a randomizing process, so ¡®objective position¡¯ is not one known to be correct, but one arrived at by an objective process¡ªone that makes a systematic effort to preclude or defeat error and bias.

 

Note that objective behavior does not presuppose honesty; on the contrary, it is a means of attaining, so far as possible, reliable results even in the face of weakness and bad character¡ªits triumph is to force a scoundrel to refrain from malfeasance by putting his actions in the public eye. We are particularly concerned here not with cases of good faith¡ªcases in which the subjects are truly determined that no unfair prejudice affect their judgment¡ªbut rather with those who would be glad to cheat, but are forestalled by a general agreement as to methods. Objective procedures are the tools of those who believe that we can devise systems so good that no one needs to be perfect.

 

The belief that objectivity can be attained, and in fact is often attained in civilized societies, is not an ¡®idealistic¡¯ one; it is not the position of those too innocent to know, or too high-minded to admit, that there are scoundrels and weaklings in the world. We champions of objectivity are only too aware that there are great numbers of people who are not in the least embarrassed by their prejudices, or interested in defeating them; we even know that almost all of us, on occasion, fall into that category. We are in fact just those with an unshocked awareness of human weakness in general, and in particular the tendency to fudge evidence when we believe that our cause is so noble as to justify fudging¡ªas virtually all causes seem to, at some time and to some people.

 

When the confused or the cunning charge that a law is invalid because it is not ¡®objective,¡¯ they mean either that legislators or prosecutors have committed a specific act of injustice in framing or enforcing it, or that the justice of the law is not demonstrable ¡ªthat is, it cannot be shown to be founded on apodictic knowledge. If they mean the former, the burden is on them to specify and document that act of injustice (we will waive, of our charity, the question of how they can demonstrate the injustice of any act, given their claim that it is impossible to be ¡®objective¡¯); if they mean the latter, they are simply rehearsing the general truth that we have no apodictic knowledge, a truth that has no bearing on any particular dispute, any more than the existence of gravity has any bearing on an investigation into a plane crash.

 

On second thought, let¡¯s not waive the question of how the critic can know that someone else is not being objective, let¡¯s ask it. When we are charged with a failure to be objective, our accuser is implicitly claiming to know what an objective position or view would be; how does he know this? If he has achieved objectivity, then objectivity is not only possible in principle, but has actually been achieved by at least one person. How did he achieve it? Why can¡¯t we achieve it too? If he has not achieved objectivity, how does he know that our position is not objective? The kindest way to think of those who have succumbed to Wittgenstein¡¯s Fallacy is that they are a bit confused.

 

The ¡®Postmodernist¡¯ Reaction to the Loss of Certainty

 

Surrendering the notion that objectivity is attainable and worth striving for, dangerous in itself, seems to lead inexorably into the even more pernicious notion that there is no such thing as objective reality: not only can we know nothing, really, but there is nothing, really, for us to know. Even the hard sciences and mathematics have been called simply stories that we like to tell ourselves, and very different from the stories that other cultures, or at least aliens in distant galaxies, tell themselves with equal justification. And this philosophical position, in itself so abstract as to seem to have no bearing whatever on quotidian life, has in fact had some very curious effects on Western politics and cultural life.

 

Nietzsche was the first philosopher of stature to recognize the death of God and the loss of belief in objective reality that is a frequent concomitant of it, and to attempt to base something like a system of thought and morality upon that loss. (The general educated public in the West has been a little slower to follow this path; it took the horrors of the twentieth century to make that public accept in large measure that they were no longer¡ªif they ever had been¡ªlooked after by a benevolent personal God.) Thinkers since Nietzsche have reacted to the loss of belief in objective reality in one of two ways: either by attempting to replace the lost belief with one founded on science or Marxism or some other secular authority, or by embracing the loss enthusiastically and proclaiming it to be a salutary development.

  1. Members of the latter school are variously called Postmodernists or Relativists or Antifoundationalists or anti-Platonists or antimetaphysicians or antiessentialists or antidualists or pragmatists or any of several other terms;

 

<<TBD>>

 

Some Thoughts From Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty is a ¡®Red-diaper Baby,¡¯ born to Communist parents, and raised in Marxist tradition from infancy. This would be, in many cases, an irrelevant or at most secondary fact; in Rorty¡¯s it is an essential one¡ªhe himself draws the connection between his left-wing views and his Postmodernism in paper after paper, as here:

In the course of those years [since the publication of Darwin¡¯s chief works] we have gradually substituted the making of a better future for ourselves, constructing a utopian, democratic society, for the attempt to see ourselves from outside of time and history. Antiessentialism is one expression of that shift. 2

Those left-wing views are thoroughly nice, of course: he (and his father before him) were never Stalinists, and he repudiates the kind of regime that once prevailed in the Soviet Union and still prevails in a few ¡®Marxist¡¯ states. Indeed, his views would be sneered at as ¡®sentimental socialism¡¯ by a tough leftie. His political views are those that prevail in most of the humanities departments in most of elite academia, and are probably best called by that coy and tendentious name ¡®Progressive.¡¯

 

Not many of his colleagues are as forthright and explicit in acknowledging the relationship between their leftishness and their postmodernist views as Rorty; he is both more candid and more lucid than the majority of them. Most of them tacitly claim to have arrived at postmodernism on purely intellectual grounds, having no relation to their coincidentally leftish politics; some may even believe this. But seeing what the postmodernists are trying to sell us politically, it¡¯s no wonder they open by trying to discredit the concept of objective truth. Those who ask us to abandon the traditional Realist concept of truth never say, as one would expect, ¡°There¡¯s no objective truth, so do your own thing!¡±; their cry is always, ¡°There¡¯s no objective truth, so do what I say!¡± And all too often, the beast that their chase has in view turns out to be a mangy donkey; in Rorty¡¯s case, all of Western philosophy between Plato and Dewey is to be junked so that the election of 1972 can be reversed, and George McGovern be declared the victor after all.

 

But my dissatisfaction with Rorty¡¯s work (and that of the other postmodernists known to me) is based on his failure to indicate why anyone else should join him in his philosophical position. What I hoped to learn from him is just what this concept or congeries of concepts known variously as postmodernism, relativism, anti-foundationalism, constructivism, and still other things, actually stands for, and what its proponents would have us do . What they are against seems clear enough: they deny that there is an autonomous, immutable thing called Reality that we¡ªespecially our scientists¡ªare investigating and coming ever closer to understanding; rather, they seem to be saying, reality (probably better spelled with a small ¡°r¡±) is formed by a kind of ongoing freestyle wrestling match we humans carry on with our environment and each other, and is not something apart from human struggles, intellectual and political. (The analogy that occurs to me, but which I suspect Rorty will not much like, is that in epistemology he is in favor of the free market rather than a centrally-planned economy.) If we Realists are metaphysical prigs, the anti-Realists are epistemic sluts.

 

We are told that we should not privilege any particular mode of investigation, or at least not the one that is commonly regarded as rational in our culture; but we are not told clearly of any better mode. All we are told about the criteria that are to replace the conventional one of correspondence to pre-existing reality is that we will be looking for accounts of experience that achieve, or maximize, coherence, continuity, and one or two other such general qualities. But reasons for thinking that conventional concepts and procedures fail to achieve these qualities, or that their relativist counterparts would achieve them more fully, are not offered.

 

My reaction to the claims of relativism was, and still is, that it is a heresy¡ªthat is, an attempt to exalt a small fragment of truth into the whole truth, or a huge chunk of it. But I was and am curious about the consequences of accepting such claims; what changes, I wondered, would we need to make in our thinking and our projects if we accepted it? It was with that question in mind that I read Rorty¡¯s books, but nowhere in them did I find what I¡¯d hoped for. Most of his writing seems to consist of variations on the theme ¡°you only hold the Realist-Objectivist position because you¡¯ve been trained to; you simply can¡¯t imagine an alternative way of looking at things.¡±

 

And I kept wanting to ask Rorty, ¡°Suppose I could see things your way; what would I do differently from what I now do? What problems would be solved, what advantages would I enjoy?¡± But no answer is offered to these questions; we simply get told, more or less explicitly, that we have to have faith. When we are told by an orthodox religious believer that faith must come first, we are offered some powerful inducements: salvation, the beatific vision, eternal life, the ministrations of a bevy of virgins¡ªbut Rorty makes no promises, doesn¡¯t even tell us our life here on earth will change for the better if we come to share his views. Is it possible that the only reason that the postmoderns can offer to induce us to join them in their war against Absolute Truth is that their doctrine is Absolutely True?

 

Postmodernism is a closed system; it cannot be criticized, because it begins by explaining away all possible criticisms as so many vestiges of discredited modes of thought; to seek to criticize it is simply to beg the question. It is an example of just what it claims to find throughout the world, a system so radically different from others as to be incommensurable; no common vocabulary exists in terms of which anyone outside the system can talk about it. Postmodernism, then, is like a mousetrap so cunningly made that no mouse, once inside, can escape¡ªbut one that will catch no mice, because it contains no bait and denies entry as much as exit. These considerations suggest yet one more name to add to the many already borne by that philosophy: solipsism.

 

Rorty would not agree that he nowhere offers reasons to us essentialists to convert; he would point to such passages as this:

Pragmatists think there are two advantages to antiessentialism. The first is that adopting it makes it impossible to formulate a lot of the traditional philosophical problems. The second is that adopting it makes it easier to come to terms with Darwin. ( ibid ., page 66)

These are curious advantages. The first is an advantage only if you believe that such problems are time-wasting, even dangerous, nonsense¡ªsomething not evident to most not already enrolled in the postmodernist ranks. The second is advantageous only if you have problems in coming to terms with ¡°Darwin,¡± by which Rorty presumably means the substitution of the mindless process called Natural Selection for the meaningful if mysterious ways of Providence¡ªin other words, if you are suffering from that conviction of the non-existence of objective reality that seems to follow from the death of God. It looks as if the advantages of postmodernism are open only to postmodernists. Why someone who is not (yet, at least) a postmodernist should find these advantages compelling is not clear; perhaps the attraction is that postmodernism is so good a resolution of these problems that one should incur the problems just to enjoy the resolution¡ªsomething like contracting a toothache just to experience its relief at the hands of a really good dentist.

 

The postmodernist suggestion that there are utterly incommensurable outlooks or weltanschauungen that preclude agreement or even mutual comprehension between parties who subscribe to different flavors of them is very like the gadfly¡¯s questions, ¡°How do you know that everything didn¡¯t double in size overnight?¡± or ¡°How do you know that the world, including your memories of the past, didn¡¯t come into being just fifteen minutes ago?¡± And the answer to the postmodernist, like the answer to the gadfly, is ¡°I haven¡¯t the faintest idea; now go away, I¡¯m busy.¡± There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but there certainly are impudent and malicious questions.

 

¡°De gustibus non est disputandum¡± says the lazy or world-weary man who wants to move on rather than argue; for the postmodernist, nothing important can be argued, because all is just gust:

You may call [a proposition] false if you like, but the falsity is not like the falsity of a candidate for truth which has been tested and found wanting. It is rather a matter of obvious irrelevance ¡ªobvious inability to be of use for your purposes. (page 62)

And he adds a little later:

¡­people change their central projects, change those parts of their self-image which they had previously found most precious. The question is, however, whether this ever happens as a result of argument . Perhaps sometimes it does, but this is surely the exception. (page 63)

Here I think Rorty has simply been unobservant. Certainly very few people are converted, at least immediately, from a deeply cherished belief simply because they have been offered an argument against it, even an argument that they have to confess they cannot rebut. But a powerful argument, if it does not compel immediate assent, sows seeds; the disputant who finds an opponent¡¯s argument invincible after wrestling with it long and hard, may finally yield years afterwards; and perhaps even more important, an argument that is heard or read by others may sway many who perhaps were not even born when the dispute was held. Rorty¡¯s argument against the efficacy of argument is unsound, because it looks only at immediate and visible effects¡ªlike Wittgensteirn¡¯s Fallacy, it presents a snapshot where a movie is called for.

 

Rorty thinks that ¡®Darwin¡¯ ruled out the development in a later species of a faculty not present, at least potentially, in earlier species:

Darwin made it hard for essentialists to think of the higher anthropoids as having suddenly acquired an extra added ingredient called ¡®reason¡¯ or ¡®intelligence¡¯, rather than simply more of the sort of cunning which the lower anthropoids had already manifested. (page 64)

 

Again, one can only say that ¡®Darwin¡¯ does no such thing. As species emerge, they may evince entirely new capabilities that differ from those of earlier ones in kind, not just degree. The ability of birds to fly is not adumbrated by the earthworm. This is not to say that man¡¯s intelligence is necessarily different in kind from that of the higher apes, but just that Rorty¡¯s argument against that possibility is unsound. (Strictly speaking, Rorty¡ªtrue to his postmodernist creed¡ªhas offered no argument, but only a bare assertion.)

 

One of the principal ways in which the issues between Postmodernists and their opponents present themselves is in the form of debate about whether such-and-such a traditional belief or practice is ¡°socially constructed¡± rather than firmly and objectively established. Rorty, in a typical statement of the postmodern position, says:

On the subject of human rights, the pragmatist thinks we should not debate whether human rights have been there all the time, even when nobody recognized them, or or are just the social construction of a civilization influenced by Christian doctrines of the brotherhood of man.

Of course they are social constructions. So are atoms, and so is everything else. For ¡­ to be a social construction is simply to be the intentional object of a certain set of sentences¡ªsentences used in some societies and not in others. (page 85)

Here the pea is being moved from one shell to another too fast for my eye to follow, and I want to slow things down. What we in the Western world, and particularly in the Anglo-American world, call ¡®human rights¡¯ are clearly rooted in our society; other societies not only do not share them, but sometimes express strong abhorrence at them (whether this expressed abhorrence is real or coerced by imams or secret police¡ª¡°socially constructed¡±¡ªis a question that I will not explore here, but it is a question). About ¡®atoms,¡¯ however, the story is rather different. The terminology Western science employs is clearly rooted in our history; we call atoms by that name because a pre-Socratic philosopher speculated that the ultimate form of physical reality was that of infinitesimally small irreducible units, but behind that terminology there are inescapable physical facts; no matter what society runs a physical experiment of the kind that prompts us to talk of ¡®splitting the atom,¡¯ they will get the same result; they may call it ¡®peeling the banana¡¯ or ¡®qzkuling the vernbog,¡¯ but they will get, and have to deal with, the same results we get at CERN or Argonne or SLAC. I think the difference between the case of human rights and that of such experimental results is momentously significant for the issues Rorty is discussing, and cannot be waved away.

 

Rorty thinks that we should stop debating all the traditional questions of Western philosophy, and simply ask of any proposition, does this help us realize our objective of becoming nicer people? He apparently believes that the proposition ¡°human progress consists solely of becoming ever more friendly, trusting, unprejudiced, non-judgmental, and accepting of others¡¯ needs¡± has been established, and that further debate is pointless¡ªin fact, was always pointless, but just wasn¡¯t fully recognized as such until postmodernism came along. This suggests that it must be a pleasure to be a neighbor of Rorty¡¯s, but likewise that he will have very little of interest to say on the issues traditionally thought of as philosophical. At his most extreme, he seems to be saying¡ªgracefully, at length, and very learnedly¡ª¡°everything important that I know, I learned in kindergarten,¡± and his essays seem simply very well-written position papers sponsored jointly by the ACLU, NOW, and the local PTA.

 

He seems also to believe that his own principles are not principles, but such obvious common sense that they need only be mentioned to win assent. He writes:

¡­we [pragmatists] see both intellectual and moral progress not as a matter of getting closer to the True or the Good or the Right, but as an increase in imaginative power. (page 87)

This is argument by typography; why not ¡°not as a matter of getting closer to the true or the good or the right, but as An Increase in Imaginative Power¡±? Why is his goal a simple good, while the others are rigid principles, to be mocked with initial capitals?

 

Notes for additions

 

<<It is of course true that there are many such people, and even that we may all be, at one time or another, such people, but this in no way implies that no one is or can be objective, any more than the existence of crime implies that no one is or can be honest.>>

 

<<story of prejudiced judge (Webster Thayer) in the Sacco-Vanzetti case>>

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One question that should be put to the incommensurable-paradigm monger is, How does a new paradigm come into being, if not as the brainchild of someone raised under an older paradigm? How did Einstein, trained in classical pre-relativistic physics, come up with a concept of space-time utterly incommensurate, under your hypothesis, with that of Newton¡ªand remain capable of reasoning within that older paradigm, as well as in the newer? (One thinks of the anecdote told of Enrico Fermi, who was discussing some advanced physics with a group of much younger men. When they showed some impatience with his failure to grasp their arguments instantly, he said, ¡°Gentlemen, you must excuse me; remember that I was trained in pre-Fermian physics!¡±)

 

It all comes about because we learn the facts of life too late. If we were told early in life that on all our most deeply held beliefs, there are people who differ with us, the resiliency of youth might enable us to digest this fact and soldier on. But too many of us, apparently, are not faced with that shocking fact until so late that when we finally learn it, we are stunned into mental paralysis, and never recover our nerve and ability to think. Since there is no absolute truth, or at least none available to humans, it follows that all appeals to truth are specious. No one, in actuality, acts on disinterested motives; all acts are self-serving, even if the actor himself sincerely thinks otherwise.

 

In every schoolyard in the country, at recess time, a skinny, intense eleven-year-old can be heard shrilling at another kid, ¡°You only say that because¡­!¡± or its dual, ¡°You wouldn¡¯t say that if¡­!¡± This is the root of deconstruction¡ªindeed, the root, the branch, and the flower. It is the rancorous assertion that nothing we say is or can be disinterested; every utterance and act is selfish, and we understand the act or utterance of another only when we see how it serves his self-interest, narrowly conceived. (The only difference between the deconstruction of the kids and that of the French caf¨¦ intellectuals is that when the kids use it on other kids, it¡¯s often valid.) And there is no possibility of refuting this judgment, because all mere facts become malleable in its presence; does a captured sailor suffer torture rather than betray his shipmates? No problem to the deconstructionist: he simply posits that the sailor would suffer greater pain by betraying his shipmates, and is therefore only serving himself by accepting torture.

 

The effect of this kind of thinking is that for the great mass of nominally educated people in the Western world, there is no way to decide, in most controversies, who is right¡ªperhaps there is no ¡°right¡± to be discovered, even in principle. We can only decide which of the controversialists¡¯ faces and personalities we prefer; the argument ad hominem is not only admitted to legitimacy, but becomes the only really valid argument, and the acceptability of any assertion depends on who is making it, and what his motives are known or suspected to be.

 

During the first half of the 20 th century, the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen taught at the City College of New York. He was a famous controversialist, one of whose standard ripostes in debate was ¡°You¡¯re wrong¡ªand if you were right, so what?¡± Cohen¡¯s Riposte, asserting that an opponent¡¯s argument is not only false but irrelevant, is the right one to level at the postmodernist constellation of arguments, which boil down to the simple assertion that all ideas (except, of course, their own) are ideologies, all shaped more or less consciously to support the power and privileges of their holders.

 

But in many cases, the postmodernists undercut their argument even as they express it: they are themselves often people who enjoy an uncommon degree of affluence, social status, and power in general, yet here they are, arguing against power and privilege¡ªhow can this be reconciled with the postmodernist notion that all arguments are fundamentally self-serving

 

So far we have dealt with the innocently confused, who simply cannot understand that their ¡®objectivity¡¯ is a will-o¡¯-the-wisp that can only lead them into the swamps of utter confusion and victimization. But there are those who are anything but innocent¡ªthose who realize fully the nullity of that term, and are happy to exploit it to get the innocent to follow them.

 

All he tells us is that the self-contradiction charge has force only for those in thrall to conventional, objectivist-Realist logic. How one escapes that thralldom, why one should try to escape it, she nowhere explains; perhaps one simply has to be born one of the elect.


Article Footnotes

1 Quoted in S. Benardete (ed.), Leo Strauss on Plato¡¯s Symposium (U. of Chicago Press, 2001), page 4.

2 Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin Books, 1999), at page 68-69.