Excerpted From The Truth about The Truth- p.100, ed. Walter T. Anderson
Ironists and Metaphysicians
P. 100 of 6 pages
All red text is MY emphasis.I also added some underline and italics.
America's most eminent philosopher describes a difference in the ways contemporary people think and talk. His description deepens Hunter's progressive-orthodox classification and makes it clear what is meant by postmodern irony.
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes.
They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives.
I shall call these words a person's "final vocabulary." It is "final" in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse.
Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.
A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as "true," "good," "right," and "beautiful." The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, "Christ," "England," "professional standards," "decency," "kindness,"
"the Revolution," "the Church," "progressive," "rigorous," "creative." The more parochial terms do most of the work.
I shall define an "ironist" as someone who fulfills three conditions:
(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;
(2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;
(3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one's way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.
I call people of this sort " ironists" because their realization that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called "meta-stable": never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves always subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves.
The opposite of irony is common sense.
For that is the watchword of those who unselfconsciously describe everything important in terms of the final vocabulary to which they and those around them are habituated.
To be commonsensical is to take for granted that statements formulated in that final vocabulary suffice to describe and judge the beliefs, actions and lives of those who employ alternative final vocabularies.
When common sense is challenged, its adherents respond at first by generalizing and making explicit the rules of the language game they are accustomed to play (as some of the Greek Sophists did, and as Aristotle did in his ethical writings). But if no platitude formulated in the old vocabulary suffices to meet an argumentative challenge, the need to reply produces a willingness to go beyond platitudes.
At that point, conversation may go Socratic.
The question "What is x!" is now asked in such a way that it cannot be answered simply by producing paradigm cases of x-hood. So one may demand a definition, an essence.
To make such Socratic demands is not yet, of course, to become an
ironist in the sense in which I am using this term. It is only to become a "metaphysician, in a sense of that term which I am adapting from Heidegger. In this sense, the metaphysician is someone who takes the question "What is the intrinsic nature of (e.g., justice, science, knowledge, Being, faith, morality, philosophy)?" at face value.
He assumes that the presence of a term in his own final vocabulary ensures that it refers to something which has a real essence.
The metaphysician is still attached to common sense, in that he does not question the platitudes which encapsulate the use of a given final vocabulary, and in particular the platitude which says there is a single permanent reality to be found behind the many temporary appearances.
He does not redescribe but, rather, analyzes old descriptions with the help of other old descriptions.
The ironist, by contrast is a nominalist and a historicist. She thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence.
So she thinks that the occurrence of a term like "just" or "scientific" or "rational" in the final vocabulary of the day is no reason to think that Socratic inquiry into the essence of justice or science or rationality will take one much beyond the language games of one's time.
The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being. But she cannot give a criterion of wrongness.
So, the more she is driven to articulate her situation in philosophical terms, the more she reminds herself of her rootlessness by constantly using terms like "Welranschauung," "perspective," "dialectic," "conceptual framework," "historical epoch," "language game," "redescription," "vocabulary," and "irony".
The metaphysician responds to that sort of talk by calling it "relativistic" and insisting that what matters is not what language is being used but what is true. Metaphysicians think that human beings by nature desire to know. They think this because the vocabulary they have inherited, their common sense, provides them with a picture of knowledge as a relation between human beings and "reality," and the idea that we have a need and a duty to enter into this relation. It also tells us that "reality," if properly asked, will help us determine what our final vocabulary should be.
So metaphysicians believe that there are, out there in the world, real essences which it is
our duty to discover and which are disposed to assist in their own discovery. They do not believe that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed--or, if they do, they deplore this fact and cling to the idea that reality will help us resist such seductions.
By contrast, ironists do not see the search for a final vocabulary as (even in part) a way of getting something distinct from this vocabulary right. They do not take the point of discursive thought to be knowing, in any sense that can be explicated by notions like "reality," "real essence", "objective point of view," and "the correspondence of language of reality". They do not think its point is to find a vocabulary which accurately represents something, a transparent medium.
For the ironists, "final vocabulary" does not mean "the one which puts all doubts to rest" or "the one which satisfies our criteria of ultimacy, or adequacy, or optimaliry." They do not think of reflection as being governed by criteria. Criteria, on their view, are never more than the platitudes which contextually define the terms of a final vocabulary currently in use. Ironists agree with Davidson about our inability to step outside our language in order to compare it with something else, and with Heidegger about the contingency and historicity of that language.
This difference leads to a difference in their attitude toward books. Metaphysicians see libraries as divided according to disciplines, corresponding to different objects of knowledge.
Ironists see them as divided accordirlg to traditions, each member of which partially adopts and partially modifies the vocabulary of the writers whom he has read. Ironists take the writings of all the people with poetic gifts, all the original minds who had a talent for redescription-Pythagoras, Plato, Milton, Newton, Goethe, Kant, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Darwin, Freud--as grist to be put through the same dialectical mill.
The metaphysicians, by contrast, want to start by getting straight about which of these people were poets, which philosophers, and which scientists. They think it essential to get the genres right-to order texts by reference to a previously determined grid, a grid which, whatever else it does, will at least make a clear distinction between knowledge claims and other claims upon our attention. The ironist, by contrast, would like to avoid cooking the books she reads by using any such grid (although, with ironic resignation, she realizes that she can hardly help doing so).
For a metaphysician, "philosophy," as defined by reference to the canonical Plato-Kant sequence, is an attempt to know about certain
things--quite general and important things. For the ironist, "philosophy," so defined, is the attempt to apply and develop a particular antecedently chosen final vocabulary--one which revolves around the appearance-reality distinction. The issue between them is, once again, about the contingency of our language--about whether what the common sense of our own culture shares with Plato and Kant is a tip-off to the way the world is, or whether it is just the characteristic mark of the discourse of people inhabiting a certain chunk of space-time. The metaphysician assumes that our tradition can raise no problems which it cannot solve--that the vocabulary which the ironist fears may be merely "Greek" or "Western" or "bourgeois" is an instrument which will enable us to get at something universal. The metaphysician agrees with the Platonic Theory of Recollection, in the form in which this theory was restated by Kierkegaard, namely, that we have the truth within us, that we have built-in criteria which enable us to recognize the right final vocabulary when we hear it. The cash value of this theory is that our contemporary final vocabularies are close enough to the right one to let us converge upon it--to formulate premises from which the right conclusions will be reached. The metaphysician thinks that although we may not have all the answers, we have already got criteria for the right answers. So he thinks "right" does not merely mean "suitable for those who speak as we do" but has a stronger sense--the sense of "grasping real essence."
For the ironist, searches for a final vocabulary are not destined to converge. For her, sentences like "All men by nature desire to know" or "Truth is independent of the human mind" are simply platitudes used to inculcate the local final vocaburary, the common sense of the West. She is an ironist just insofar as her own final vocabulary does not contain such notions. Her description of what she is doing when she looks For a better final vocabulary than the one she is currently using is dominated by metaphors of making rather than finding, of diversification and novelty rather than convergence to the antecedently present. She thinks of final vocabularies as poetic achievements rather than as fruits of diligent inquiry according to antecedently formulated criteria.
Because metaphysicians believe that we already possess a lot of the "right" final vocabulary and merely need to think through its implications, they think of philosophical inquiry as a matter of spotting the relations between the various platitudes which provide contextual definitions of the
terms of this vocabulary. So they think of refining or clarifying the use of terms as a matter of weaving these platitudes (or, as they would prefer to say, these intuitions) into a perspicuous system. This has two consequences. First, they tend to concentrate on the thinner, more tlexible, more ubiquitous items in this vocabulary--words like "true," "good," "person," and "object." For the thinner the term, the more platitudes will employ it. Second, they take the paradigm of philosophical inquiry to be logical argument-that is spotting the inferential relationships between propositions rather than comparing and contrasting vocabularies.
The typical strategy of the metaphysician is to spot an apparent contradiction between two platitudes, two intuitively plausible propositions, and then propose a distinction which will resolve the contradiction. Metaphysicians then go on to embed this distinction within a network of associated distinctions--a philosophical theory--which will take some of the strain off the initial distinction. This sort of theory construction is the same method used by judges to decide hard cases, and by theologians to interpret hard texts. That activity is the metaphysician's paradigm of rationality. He sees philosophical theories as converging-a series of discoveries about the nature of such things as truth and personhood, which get closer and closer to the way they really are, and carry the culture as a whole closer to an accurate representation of reality.
The ironist, however, views the sequence of such theories-such interlocked patterns of novel distinctions--as gradual, tacit substitutions of a new vocabulary for an old one. She calls "platitudes" what the metaphysician calls "intuitions." She is inclined to say that when we surrender an old platitude (e.g., "The number of biological species is fixed" or "Human beings differ from animals because they have sparks of the divine with them" or "Blacks have no rights which whites are bound to respect"), we have made a change rather than discovered a fact. The ironist, observing the sequence of "great philosophers" and the interaction between their thought and its social setting, sees a series of changes in the linguistic and other practices of the Europeans. Whereas the metaphysician sees the modern Europeans as particularly good at discovering how things really are, the ironist sees them as particularly rapid in changing their self-image, in re-creating themselves.
The metaphysician thinks that there is an overriding intellectual duty to present arguments for one's controversial views--arguments which will
start from relatively uncontroversial premises. The ironist thinks that such arguments--logical arguments--are all very well in their way, and useful as expository devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices withouc admitting they have done so. The
ironist's preferred form of argument is dialectical in the sense that she takes the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. Her method is redescription rather than inference. Ironists specialize in redesctibing ranges of objects or events in partially neologistic jargon, in the hope of inciting people to adapt and extend that jargon. An ironist hopes that by the time she has finished using old words in new senses, not to mention introducing brand-new words, people will no longer ask questions phrased in the old words. So the ironist thinks of logic as ancillary to dialectic, whereas the metaphysician thinks of dialectic as a species of rhetoric, which in turn is a shoddy substitute for logic.