Monday, April 18, 2011

The Novel by Richard Rorty

Given the immense influence the novel has come to have in recent times, it is hard for us the remember that such writers as Milton and Spinoza, Dr. Johnson and Hume, Burke and Kant, were familiar with only a few, rather primitive, examples of this genre. The burgeoning of the novel in the 19th and 20th centuries has altered the the map of the Western intellectual world and it has done so in ways that the philosophers and literary critics of the 17th and 18th century could never have foreseen.

The emergence of the novel has contributed to a growing conviction among intellectuals that when we think about the effects of our actions on other human beings we can simply ignore a lot of questions that our ancestors traditionally thought relevant. These include Euthyphro’s question about whether our actions are pleasing to the gods, Plato’s question about whether they are dictated by a clear vision of the Good, and Kant’s question about whether their maxims can be universalized. Instead, a decision about what to do should be determined by as rich and full a knowledge of other people as possible – in particular-, knowledge of their own descriptions of their actions and of themselves. Our actions can be justified only when we are able to see how these actions look from the points of view of those affected by them.

Most novels tell us how other erring mortals think of themselves, how people quite unlike ourselves contrive to put the actions that appall us in a good light, how they give meaning to their miserable or tragic or banal lives. The problem of how to live our own lives then becomes a problem of how to balance our needs against theirs, and their self-descriptions against ours. To have a more educated, developed and sophisticated moral outlook is to be able to grasp more of these needs, and to understand more of these self-descriptions.

I have said previously that religion, in its unphilosophized form, resembles the novel in that it attempts to put us in relations to persons which are not mediated by questions of truth. The relation between a pious but uneducated Athenian of the 5th century and one of the Olympian deities, like that between an illiterate Christian and Christ, is an attempt to find redemption by getting in touch with a special, very powerful, immortal, sort of person. As Nietzsche said in The Birth of Tragedy, that sort of search for redemption becomes tinted with questions of truth only when Socrates, “with his belief in the explicabality of the nature of things,” suggests that “the mechanism of making concepts, judgments and inferences is to be prized above all other human activities.” The search becomes philosophical only after people like Socrates and Euripides have taken a skeptical stance towards the gods, a stance that Homer, and perhaps Aeschyles, would have been incapable of adopting.

The big difference, however, between religious worship and novel-reading is that immortals are the object of adoration or self-abnegating love or fearful obedience, rather than people in whose shoes we are trying to put ourselves. As soon as we begin to want to understand the gods, or to make Christianity or Buddhism reasonable, religion begins to fade away and be replaced by philosophy. That is why Martin Luther described such attempts at reasonableness as diabolical temptations and why Kierkegaard described them as occasions of sin. But novels rarely offer us god-like heroes and heroines, to whom our reaction resembles that of religious believer towards deities ( though some, of course, do – Superman comic books and the fantasies of Ayn Rand, for example.)

Obviously, the novel is not the only literary genre which helps us achieve a more developed and sophisticated moral outlook. Homer’s epics, Herodotus’s travelogues, Thucydides’s history, Theophrastus’s characterology, and Plutarch’s biographies did this sort of work in the ancient world, supplemented by such primitive fictions as those of Petronius and Apuleius. In our own time, ethnography, historiography, and journalism continue to broaden our sense of the possibilities open to human lives. But the novel is the genre which gives us most help in grasping the variety of human life and the contingency of our own moral vocabulary.

Novels are the principle means which help us imagine what it is like to be a cradle Catholic losing his faith, a redneck fundamentalist taking Jesus into her heart, a victim of Pinochet coping with the disappearance of her children, a kamikaze pilot of the Second World War living with the fact of Japan’s defeat, a bomber pilot who dropped fire-bombs on Tokyo coping with the moral price of America’s victory, or an idealistic politician coping with the pressures that multinational corporations bring to bear on the political process.

Novel-reading often increases tolerance for the strange, and initially repellent, sorts of people. But the motto of the novel is not “to understand all is the forgive all.” Rather, it is “Before you decide that an action was unforgivable, make sure that you know how it looked to the agent.” You may well conclude that it was indeed unforgivable, but the knowledge of why it was done may help you avoid committing actions that you yourself will later find unforgivable. That is why reading a great many novels is the process by which young intellectuals of our time hope to become wise. This hope is the same that drove young intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries to read a great many religious and philosophical treatises.

Philosophers and theologians today who are dubious about the idea that novels are important for education think one can answer moral questions by saying, for example, “all children of God Matter” or “all rational agents matter” or “all those affected by our actions matter.” But questions always arise about whether infidels count as the children of God, or the densely ignorant or stupid as rational agents, or whether we are justified in being paternalistic towards those who do not grasp their own best interest. An increasing sense of the vacuity of general formula for deciding hard cases leads us away from philosophy and towards literary forms that tell us more about that these recalcitrant sort of people look like to themselves.

I can sum up much of what I have been saying as follows: people read religious scriptures and philosophical treatises to escape from ignorance of how non-humans things are, but they read novels to escape from egotism. “Egotism”, in the sense in which I am using the term, does not mean “selfishness”, it means something more like “self-satisfaction”. It is a willingness to assume that one already has all the knowledge necessary for deliberation, all the understanding of the consequences of a contemplated action that could be needed, It is the idea that one is now fully informed, and thus in the best possible position to make the correct choices.

Egotists who are inclined to philosophize hope to short-circuit the need to find out what is on the mind of other people. They would like to go straight to the way things are ( to the will of God, or moral law, or the nature of human beings) without passing through other people’s self-descriptions. Religion and philosophy have often served as shields for fanaticism and intolerance because they suggest that this sort of short-circuiting has actually been accomplished. Novel-readers, by contrast, are seeking redemption from insensitivity rather than from impiety or irrationality. They may not know or care whether there is a way things really are, but they worry about whether they, are sufficiently aware of the needs of others. Viewed from this angle, the hegemony of the novel can be viewed as an attempt to carry through Christ’s suggestion that love is the only law.

The person who hopes to render more confident moral judgments as the result of the study of religious or philosophical treatises is usually hoping to find a principle that will permit of application to concrete cases, for an algorithmm that will resolve moral dilemmas. But the person who hopes for greater sensitivity just wants to develop the know-how that will let him make the best of what is always likely to be a pretty bad job – a situation in which people are likely to get hurt, no matter what decision is taken…

”Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises”, 2001, by permission of the Estate of Richard Rorty.[The Rorty Reader]


  1. Just as those who have had what they describe as religious experiences are rarely able to spell out what new truths they have learned by having them, the readers of Henry James or Marcel Proust are usually baffled when asked what truths they picked up from these men’s novels that they might have otherwise missed. It is the experience of reading the novel that makes one into a rather different sort of person, not the utility of the belief one might have acquired by various other means, even if one had never picked up that particular book. Just as Christians say that their relationship to Jesus is not exactly to the author of the Sermon on the Mount, but rather to someone with whom the live on terms of intimacy, so many readers of Proust and James will insist that what matters is their relation to the novels themselves, or perhaps to the novelist himself, rather than to any set of beliefs for which the novel might be cited as justification.

  2. John Bayley, in his introduction to James’s The Wings of the Dove, says that James’s

    ‘later mode of artistic inquiry is a way of overcoming loneliness, of extending an almost tactile intimacy to the potential reader through the mode of words… Consciousness seems shared between the author, characters and reader, and the participation of the last has its own special rewards and fascinations, which can arise out of bafflement itself. Intimacy is never a matter of being told what to think. It is like the secret converse of lovers, whose understanding is not dependent on a single authority.’

  3. Just as religious readers find themselves caught up in something larger than themselves, something that occasionally resembles orgasmic ecstasy, so readers of James and Proust find themselves caught up in a sort of suddenly shared enlargement of the imagination and suddenly shared intensity of appreciation of the passing moment that occurs when two lovers find their loves reciprocated. Proust and James offer their readers redemption, not redemptive truth, jut as his or her love redeems the lover, but does not add to his or her knowledge.

  4. Thanks for the link, John. Would not you think that theater used to play a comparable role? Think of the social importance of tragedies and how they showed to their audience how it is to be Medea or a Bacchantes…