Recently Scott Soames wrote two books on the history of philosophy from 1900 to 1970. Richard Rorty’s review of these books in the LRB has attracted quite a bit of attention among philosophers. A reply by Soames has been printed, but apparently it was cut down quite a bit for space reasons. So a full version of Soames’s reply (warning: PDF) has been put on the web. I expected I’d be rather sympathetic to Soames’s side of this debate, but actually I thought Rorty got in some surprisingly good points, the most central of which were about my primary area of research, vagueness.
Rorty starts his review with what Soames calls an “amusing fable”.
‘I had hoped my department would hire somebody in the history of philosophy,’ my friend lamented, ‘but my colleagues decided that we needed somebody who was contributing to the literature on vagueness.’
‘The literature on what?’ I asked.
‘Dick,’ he replied, exasperated, ‘you’re really out of it. You don’t realise: vagueness is huge.’
I don’t know whether that is true or not. I don’t know anyone who got hired to work on vagueness as such (except at St Andrews where they have a vagueness research project) but it could be true. Both Rorty and Soames agree that in the (near) future vagueness will be a hot topic. And at first in looks like Rorty thinks this is a bad thing. Here’s his initial characterisation of the issue.
To see what philosophy may look like in the future, consider the problem that gave rise to the huge literature on vagueness: the paradox of the heap. Soames formulates it as follows: ‘If one has something that is not a heap of sand, and one adds a single grain of sand to it, the result is still not a heap of sand . . . if n grains of sand are not sufficient to make a heap then n+1 grains aren’t either.’ So it seems that ‘no matter how many grains of sand may be gathered together, they are not sufficient to make a heap of sand.’
Some philosophers, such as Crispin Wright, respond to this paradox in the spirit of Wittgenstein. They argue that (as Soames puts it) ‘the rules governing ordinary vague predicates simply do not allow for sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which the predicates apply from objects of any other sort.’ Others, such as Timothy Williamson, hold (again in Soames’s words) that ‘vague predicates are in fact perfectly precise – in the sense that there are sharp and precise lines dividing objects to which they truly apply from objects to which they truly do not – but it is impossible for us ever to know where these lines are.’
An educational administrator (a dean in the US, a pro-vice-chancellor in Britain), asked to ratify the appointment of someone who has produced a brilliant new theory of heaps, might be tempted to ask whether this sort of thing is really philosophy.
Soames seems to take this to be a sign that Rorty has stopped corresponding with philosophical reality.
Richard Rorty (LRB, 20, January) begins his provocative discussion of my two volumes on analytic philosophy with an amusing fable about a department chair facing the daunting task of convincing the Dean to hire a philosopher working on vagueness. Not to worry. As Rorty himself ends up implicitly acknowledging, the imagined job candidate is not striving to become an expert on the composition of heaps, with the idea of solving practical problems perplexing civil engineers, but of illuminating the rules of our logic and language, and their application to the world. This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are forging ahead by replacing Rorty’s metaphorical question—Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality?—with more specific, nonmetaphorical questions on which real progress can be made. Rorty’s failure to register this is, I believe, connected to a broader failure of perspective arising from his disengagement from analytic philosophy in the last 25 years.
And if that’s all Rorty had said, that would have been a perfectly good reply. But Rorty has a more nuanced take on the vagueness debates than you might think from reading the above passages.
The controversy between realists, who think that the notion of truth as correspondence to reality can be saved, and pragmatists, who regard it as hopeless, seems to me much more fruitful than the question of whether ‘Water is H2O’ is a necessary truth. The debate about the utility of the ‘map’ metaphor has been going on for a long time now, and shows no signs of abating. It seethes beneath the surface of discussions of many seemingly unrelated questions. One such question is the nature of vague predicates. Timothy Williamson ends his much discussed book Vagueness with arguments against the ‘nominalist’ suggestion that ‘properties, relations and states of affairs are mere projections onto the world of our forms of speech,’ and concludes that ‘our contact with the world is as direct in vague thought as it is in any thought.’ Crispin Wright takes up the topic of vagueness not because he cares deeply about how many grains it takes to make a heap but because doing so helps him formulate a view about the extent to which mastering a language can be treated as a matter of obedience to semantical rules – rules about how to line words up with things. It is an underlying concern with the question of whether and how language gets in touch with the world that has made vagueness a hot topic. Perceived relevance to such larger questions enables philosophers who specialise in heaps to shrug off the suggestion that they are trivialising a discipline that once had considerable cultural importance (and, in some countries, still does).
It seems to me that there is much in that that is correct, and which someone who hadn’t been following the relatively recent literature on vagueness (at least the post-1994 literature, when Vagueness was published) relatively closely couldn’t have picked up upon. It’s not true that everyone who writes on vagueness thinks that it is relevant to debates about the correspondence metaphor (I’m not sure that any of Cornell’s many vagueness-people think that it is relevant for example) but it is in part how Williamson and Wright view their disagreement. Williamson’s theory of vagueness is an attempt to show how realism can be defended even on its toughest ground. If he’s right then, as Rorty realises, the rout is on. And looking at Williamson’s larger body of work, not to mention his comments in his vagueness work, this isn’t some unintended side-effect of someone working in a fundamentally different field, it’s one reason why Williamson is interested in vagueness.
So I think Rorty’s right on this point. One of the areas that is, as Soames acknowledges, a cutting-edge area of philosophy is an area where (contemporary versions of) debates about realism are being fought out. And, at least in Britain, those debates are informed by the successes and failures of realist and anti-realist proposals of days gone by. Score one for the claim that the correspondence debates (or the realism debates as I think of them) are central to philosophy.
Rorty’s main point here is to challenge Soames to find similar areas of philosophy where the debates he thinks are central, in particular debates about the epistemological significance of common sense and the distinctions between various modal and quasi-modal concepts, are just as important. Soames doesn’t even set himself that challenge in the book. I’m not convinced that it is a challenge that can’t be met. The contemporary debates about property dualism, for example, wouldn’t be possible in their current form without Kripke’s work. And they are important parts of philosophy. So I’m not sure Rorty ultimately wins this debate, but I do think he’s making points and that Soames should be responding to them.