OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.
That meaning per se dominates the raw material it purports to make sense of, that “really” is reduced to a “rhetorical flourish” rather than a description of what’s out there, that dinosaurs roamed the earth because “it is widely agreed” that they did so, that the meaning which the ancients ascribed to the giant bones is as valid as the meaning which modern paleontologists assign to them, that the real isn’t discovered but is “composed by people” — these are views that wake me up at night.
As I see it, the biggest terrors of a thoroughgoing socially-constructive pragmatism as you describe it are these. First, from a selfish point of view, if I create something that no one else acknowledges as meaningful to them, then what I’ve created remains unreal. Second, if someone discovers something about the world and no one finds it meaningful to them, then it’s as if that discovered thing doesn’t exist. Third is the thoroughgoing anthropocentrism: if there are no humans on the scene to create meanings for objects and forces and events, then those things are unreal. Fourth is the politico-economic concern: if some dominant and influential social group asserts that 2+2=5, then that becomes the new reality.
Here’s something I wrote a few years ago that you’ll probably resonate with:
Which is the more powerful act: to create all the things that
populate the heavens and the earth, or to create systems of meaning by
which the heavens and the earth become real? An individual insect can
die at the same instant that another one hatches; a whole species of
insect can come into existence, thrive, and fall into extinction;
mountain ranges can be lifted up from the sea, slowly crumble to rock,
and sink back into the deep; a star can form, generate enough gravity
to support a solar system and enough energy to support life, and then
collapse and disintegrate. These are physical events involving the
creation, transformation and destruction of matter. However, until they
find their place in a system of meaning, these events and things are
If you watch my little home videos on my new Sir Toby’s post you’ll hear how I use this approach as the basis for an interpretation of Genesis 1. I.e., Elohim didn’t create the material universe ex nihilo; instead, he invented a “language game” that happened to catch on. Did I discover the truth about Genesis 1 is “really” about, or did I create it? I wrote this reading first as a nonfiction, but now I’ve rewritten it as fiction. Does fictionalizing it make it less “real,” or more so? If no one watches those videos, do they not exist? And so on.
I’m curious about what pragmatic use you’re making of these ideas, Jacob. On your bio you say you’re working on a Ph.D. In what? Is pragmatism versus realism integral to your doctoral thesis?
Incidentally, when I was in grad school I heard Rorty talk a couple of times. He was on the English faculty at the U. of Virginia while I was studying psychology there. As you can imagine, his colloquium wasn’t very “meaningful” to an empirically-oriented psych department, largely because his philosophical arguments critiqueing a “mirror of nature” epistemology had very little pragmatic impact on the day-to-day work of doing science on how humans think. Also, Rorty’s was the only lecture on Freud I heard during the entirety of my doctoral program.