In “Confiance au Monde: or, The Poetry of Ease,” Oren Izenberg brings to bear on a selection of poems several considerations raised by John McDowell in his book Mind and World that suggest a way of understanding what one could call the therapeutic effect of the poems, and this in ways of relevance for both philosophy and literature. In “On Going On: Rules Inferences and Literary Conditions, Paul Grimstad brings to bear on certain philosophical claims, especially on the “analytic pragmatism” of Robert Brandom, as explored in his book, Making It Explicit, considerations derived ultimately from Stanley Cavell’s reflections on the “literary conditions” of philosophy, themselves indebted to Wittgenstein’s famous rule-following discussions, and thereby suggests something about the philosophical availability of literature, and this again of relevance to both philosophy and to literature.1
Both Izenberg and Grimstad raise fundamental issues about the nature and import of reflexivity itself in philosophical and critical practice that are very difficult to get into focus in any economical way. I will try only to say what I take each to be saying, and to raise some questions for further discussion.
By a “poetry of ease” Izenberg says he means not “just a relief from anxiety” but a “release into life,” an “expression” of something like Horatian otium, or what he calls, in using Whitman as a foil (Whitman’s self-affirmation is not what is meant by “ease”), a “confident consubstantiality.” And Izenberg wants to delineate how concern with such an issue (perhaps most familiar in the pastoral tradition) gets a special grip on the “modern subject” and so “modern poetry,” indeed imposes an unavoidable constraint or task on it, a necessary confrontation with the lack of a confident consubstantiality.
As I see it, the ontological conception of ‘discursive consciousness’ as exterior to nature places upon poetry a limit of expressive variation. That limit is the poet’s knowledge of the apparent requirement of subjective unease, borne into speech.
In the modern German literary and philosophical tradition since Hölderlin first started to characterize modernization as a loss of any confident place in both the natural and social world, this “condition” is best summarized in Nietzsche’s brief characterization of the modern German temper: “homesickness.” It is prominent in Hegel on modern “torn apartness” (Zerissenheit), Weber on disenchantment (Entzauberung), and Heidegger on the forgetting of being, (Seinsvergessenheit). In other words, it’s everywhere, and not just among the Germans.
But Izenberg wants some “alternative to the infinite nuances of negativity,” some answer to “the person whose occasions for speaking are instances of the world’s failure either to accommodate her existence or to provide a justification for his desire to exist.” To explain what he is looking for, and what he considers uniquely available in poetry, he turns to John McDowell’s Mind and World. This appropriation involves three steps, the third of which is the most controversial. First, Izenberg summarizes McDowell on the unique “anxieties of modern philosophy”: basically the problem of skepticism or the more general problem of understanding the possibility of perceptual knowledge of the world. This problem is understood as a putative gap between subjective representation and reality, and this issue is taken to be how to bridge that gap. Second, Izenberg follows McDowell in trying to show that there is no problem to be solved, there is no such gap to be bridged. Or there seems to be, but only on unnecessary assumptions about subjectivity and interiority, and on the assumption of an even broader gap between the unique discourse of human intelligibility (a normative discourse, the “space of reasons”) and the causal regularities of the disenchanted natural world. We can show how both assumptions are avoidable if we are simply “reminded” that “nature is also second nature,” that one of the natural capacities possessed by human beings, once suitably socialized in a community (once formed by Bildung), is a responsiveness to reasons. At the perceptual level, this reminder (ultimately, but it takes an enormous amount of philosophical work to show how) bears on an extremely delicate philosophical claim that even McDowell has had to constantly explain, tinker with, reformulate, defend to critics and even revise to some degree2: that the deliverances of sensibility are always already conceptual, not the mere “matter” for the imposition of human conceptual form.
But, to come to the third and most controversial step, Izenberg is taken with the idea that this “exorcism” of such blinding and avoidable assumptions is to be achieved not by an argument but by a “reminder.” And so he wants to turn to his issues with a disclaimer: “If this thin obviousness has contestable merits as a philosophical strategy, it [the reminder] has considerable promise as a poetic one.” Or: “the idea of a reminder is the idea of a poetry of ease.” So he imports McDowell exorcising reminders on the limited if crucial issues of perceptual mind-world relations into the context most famously expressed in the German tradition cited above, at once the ontological question of the status of human subjects in the natural world, and the modern historical experience of having ourselves, collectively over time, created a social world which is as much ours as it is alien. He then launches into a consideration of what he calls “Wordsworth’s famous McDowllian argument” of the fittedness of world and mind, George Peele’s lyric “A Summer Song,” and Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” He denies that a sensibility like O’Hara’s is a mere “form of exquisite sensibility,” “but rather a way of judging and sorting the world,” a claim that allows him to refer to “the philosophy of O’Hara’s fun” and to claim that it contributes “rationally to a judgment of the world.”
The question raised by this importation is whether the issues raised by McDowell about perceptual knowledge in Mind and World bear on the questions of existential alienation or the “world’s failure” to provide someone with a “justification for his desire to exist.” By asking such a question, I don’t mean to start rebuilding fences between disciplines. What McDowell is saying has to do very generally with how material objects or the sensory interchanges with the physical world could so much as possibly bear meaning, and so his perspective is capacious enough to invite some of Izenberg’s questions about, one could say, finding meaningful “ease.”3 And in some general sense, McDowell does want to find a way of claiming that “experience” can serve as a “tribunal” for perceptual knowledge claims without having to answer to skeptic’s questions about bridging a gap. This could certainly suggest similar strategies elsewhere. But is this picture about perceptual knowledge importable in the way Izenberg proposes? If our erotic investment in “the world” begins to fail, if what I (or we) have to endure and suffer begins to seem pointless, if we begin to suffer what Izenberg wants to say is “metaphysical unease,” is the response offered by the poems he cites rightly thought of as a form of justification, a move in the space of reasons? It could only be if there is there some way equivalent or analogous to McDowell’s to show the sufferer that he has misunderstood himself and his relation to the world, that the source of his experience, this failure of meaning, is an “illusion.” Izenberg is rightly sensitive to the need not merely to dismiss the experience as some kind of pathology or mistake, and he is well aware of the need to grapple seriously with the powerful grip of the illusion and the reasons for such a grip, but the question is deeper: whether an illusion, on the order of some post-Cartesian misdirected agenda in epistemology, is a proper matrix for understanding the sort of suffering chronicled in the modern literature of loss, absurdity, alienation, meaninglessness and simple heartlessness. (For that matter, the larger question here: could McDowell be right that the Cartesian agenda is simply an illusion, to be recovered from, to be exorcised? Is not that image itself telling, as if it is something like possession, witchcraft? Could that be right?) And what about the “weight” of the poetic “evidence” adduced by Izenberg, that manifestation of possible ease. What are we to do with such a moment of “release” in the light of, say, what is so powerfully expressed by Beckett, much of Stevens, Philip Larkin? And I don’t mean to point to other anxieties, but to poets on about just what Izenberg is, the “metaphysics of unease.” If O’Hara’s philosophy is a kind of “rational judgment,” a move in the space of reasons that, having been understood, justifies, how is it to be weighed against, what should one call it? The “counter-evidence”? (And again, could the problem itself be one of “justification”? Would that not be like our ever so commercially successful “cognitive therapists” asking: “But do you have any real reason to be depressed?” Could there be a more irrelevant question?) Is there an appropriate set of scales on which such “disagreements” could be weighed? Again, it may be that something like being at home in a natural or social world is not the kind of relation that needs “justification,” that the assumption that it does partly creates the problem, but this realization could leave us worse off, enduring a fate, not victims of a mistake or illusion.
The largest question (and I mean these not as rhetorical but as genuine questions provoked by Izenberg’s thoughtful essay): could the possibly therapeutic effect of any modern literature be understood without, first, placing it in the context of modern and modernist aesthetics, especially the epochal turn from aesthetics to the philosophy of art begun by Kant, extended by Schiller and completed by Schelling and Hegel? (How much is left of an “aesthetic” dimension, in other words, in late modernity? If anything, what is it? What could allow us to consider that therapeutic?) And second, could that turn be understood without an ambitious account of the basic dynamic of modernization itself and the status of art within it, its new autonomy and not coincidentally its new doubts about itself, where that dynamic has to include (impossibly) everything from the new role of religion, industrialization, the rise of science to supreme cognitive authority, and so on? What makes a modern literature of ease a response to a modern understanding or even a modern “metaphysics” of unease, especially if we bring these poems to bear on the Master of Massive Unease, Heidegger, who has given us a phenomenology of “unease” as necessary, unavoidable, “fundamental,” hardly an “illusion”?4
In “On Going On: Rules, Inferences and Literary Conditions,” Paul Grimstad wants to sign on to the most important point about linguistic meaning in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (PI)5 – that meaning is use – but to distinguish the interpretation given the famous phrase by “analytic pragmatism,” especially in the work of Robert Brandom,6 from another that he derives from Stanley Cavell. This leads him to very interesting and very speculative reflections about the relation between philosophy and literature.
Grimstad explores Wittgenstein’s idea by commenting on §293 of PI, the “beetle box” example, part of Wittgenstein’s multi-front attempt to loosen the hold of the idea that what someone means by a word can be determined by being able to “check” what mental experience she is having when thinking the word. He is out to disabuse us of all such fantasies of peering inside the mind of another, as in “other minds skepticism” about whether others are human (or automata), or whether they feel what I feel when they feel and express pain, or even the more natural notion of peering into our own mind. Another good illustration occurs at PI, p.217, when someone is imagined wondering what another might mean by “At that word we both thought of him.” Not even God, Wittgenstein points out, assuming his capacity to look inside what another is thinking, would thereby be able to determine the answer to such a question. (“If God had looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of.”) And so, accordingly, learning the meaning of a word or coming to understand a concept is not to grasp some “thought” or a “meaning,” but to acquire a kind of know-how, an ability to use the word in a variety of contexts, and this in a way acknowledged by others.7 Brandom glosses this as understanding its inferential possibilities, understanding how saying p, being committed to the truth of p, also requires that one must be committed to q and to ~r, and to much else, none of which is entertained in what one is at some punctuated moment aware of, and all of which (what one is actually committed to de re, not just de dicto), requires an understanding of the way normative attitudes work in a community, how we are held to account by such deontic score-keeping. Or, understanding an assertion is being able to understand how it could function as a premise or conclusion of an inference in what Brandom famously calls the “game of giving and asking for reasons.”
This issue becomes much more complicated though when we try to explain these kinds of normative proprieties. Language use is constrained by norms; that is, rules. If people can’t “check” their use against an internal standard or criterion of some sort, how do we know, how does the speaker know, that she is “going on the same way”? In Brandom’s inferentialist position (and many others that follow Wittgenstein), the situation (whether a rule is being followed properly) is not helped by someone citing some further rule, defining correct application for this rule. That would obviously generate a regress. And so we come to a problem that was first posed as a dilemma or paradox by Kant (who was one of the first to understand concepts as rules, “predicates of possible judgments”).8
Here is where Grimstad wants to raise an objection to Brandom, contrasting his “inferentialism” with what he finds in Cavell. His basic question is, “But is Wittgenstein’s idea of the criteria by which we take our talk to be meaningful a matter of ‘inference?” He finds in Cavell’s notion of “literary conditions” of Wittgenstein’s “philosophical aims” a less restrictive and so more adequate of what he calls an “alternate form of justification.”
Could a tactful or artful (or beguiling or captivating or worrisome) ordering of words – what we might simply call a style – itself generate a criterion for claiming? How exactly can, as Cavell puts it, “an ordering of words [be] its own bottom line [and] to see its own ground.”
This is a hard thought, not only that a “style” could be an alternate form of justification, but of a sort that could respond to some sort of anxiety about correctly going on in the right way.
A lot will depend on how one understands the “inference” in inferentialism and what one takes to be a “justification.” As Grimstad notes, Brandom, following Wittgenstein, wants to explain the normative proprieties of rule-following (“going on in the right way”) without either reducing such a notion to mere regularities in speech and behavior, and without any appeal to another rule which stipulates how some rule is supposed to be applied, which would generate the regress. But it is important to note, first, that Brandom does not confuse the theorist of such norms, and the theorist’s “making it explicit” activity, with what goes on in the social negotiation that ensues among participants when there is a challenge to some claim of commitment or some disavowal of a commitment. (No participant, claiming that a belief that p does not at all commit him to the truth of r will appeal to the game of inferential articulation as such.) Moreover, second, it is even more important to note that Brandom does not at all want to restrict “inference” to anything like “formally valid” inference. In fact he wants vigorously to deny that inferential articulation should be understood simply as “logical articulation.” That would disallow something crucial to Brandom’s (and Sellars’) theory: material implication.9 (“Today is Wednesday” materially implies “Tomorrow will be Thursday.”)
But if inference is not restricted to formally valid inference, and if it includes material implication (of a wide variety of sorts) then the “game of giving and asking for reasons” could not look like disputants setting out premises and conclusions in logical form, and certainly not appealing to “explicit” rules or to any theory. So what is so restrictive about it? Someone claiming to be a “citizen” claims, say, not to mean this or that that another or others do claim it to mean, and the dispute begins, appealing to the nation’s history, famous examples, other similar cases, and so forth. A friend says, “this is what a friend does,” and reveals a confidence, and another says that that is not friendship but “betrayal.” Inferentialism and the reliance on normative attitudes, double-book score-keeping, and all of Brandom’s apparatus is not meant to counter or replace or reduce in any way what is required by such a phenomenology.
But Grimstad appears not to be worried so much about the right presentation of Brandom’s theory, but about the fact that he offers a theory at all— that he thinks we need a theory of “how norms are implicit in practice.” This always, Grimstad thinks, diverges from Wittgenstein, and is an illusion captured well in many of Cavell’s formulations, especially in the “Introductory Note” added to “The Investigations’ Everyday Aesthetics of Itself.”10 Norms are implicit in practice is this contrasting sense, in a way evident or “shown” by the “ordering of words” itself. Here is a crucial passage in Grimstad.
A kind of literary tact – the sound of these words in this order – would then serve as the condition under which we are entitled to mean in our own and find meaning in another’s words. The sort of perspicacity striven for here is not a matter of lining up reasons (it would not be formal in the way that a proof is formal), but of attunement to arrangements of words in specific contexts.
But who believes that the “perspicacity” in question is a “matter of lining up reasons” or that it must be “formal in the way a proof is formal”? Certainly not Brandom.
So what is the issue? If we are going to use terms like “alternate forms of justification” and terms like “entitlement,” then it is also the case that we have to concede that any such claim to authority can be challenged (if in fact it is a claim to entitlement), and when challenged must be responded to in some way. The nature of the response depends on the nature and form of the claim. But claims are claims and they don’t come for free. It can be difficult; reasons of all kinds can seem to give out, but nothing in Brandom’s theory forecloses such difficulties. (He has no “theory” about substantive claims, no views on how negotiations and disputes and challenges should go on. That depends on a community’s practices at a time. And it is a pragmatic theory, not a formal one; ultimately a matter of what participants allow each other to say. Not for nothing is the book dedicated to Rorty.) Justly famous passages like this one from Cavell do not bypass such dialectical entanglements:
We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of significance and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor, and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls “forms of life.” Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (because it is) terrifying.11
I see nothing here that conflicts with any non-formalist inferentialism, and much that requires it, once we realize that in particular cases any such expectation of commonality can fail, what one takes to be an expression of forgiveness could be taken by others to be false, not credible. Leaping, at every such instance, to “well, this is just how I go on” is the wrong, because always potentially smug, response, especially since I have to realize I may be wrong; they may be right.
Sometimes the right response to such a breakdown is an attempt, perhaps a collective attempt, at what Grimstad calls a proper “attunement” to some propriety, assuming it has been somehow lost. We might have to help each other regain some common attunement to forgiveness or justice or fairness or vengeance or even to “male” and “female.” And there is every reason to think that some intense attention to literature can be of great, indispensable, unique help in such an enterprise.12 But to distinguish “literature” from “philosophy” in the way Grimstad does at the end of his piece, as if the former moves us away from any “giving of reasons” and towards some mute, you-either-see-it-or-you-don’t “showing,” at bottom seems to me to re-inscribe a very traditional division (“you guys take care of the reasons; I’ll take care of the deep insights”) that we would be better advised to reject. If we are rather being asked to think of “reasons” in some new way, then we must be shown how that new way can fulfill the minimal condition for their being reasons: being offered in a way that can be challenged and defended.13