Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.4 (2003) 391-425
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Beyond Science and Supermen:
Bellow and Mind at Mid-Century
It's bad to be less than human and it's bad to be more than human. What's more than human? . . . Caesar, if you remember, in the play wanted to be like a god. . . . Can a god have diseases? So this is a sick man's idea of God. Does a statue have wax in its ears? Naturally not. It doesn't sweat either, except maybe blood on holidays. If I can talk myself into it that I never sweat and make everybody else act as if it was true, maybe I can fix it up about dying, too. We only know what it is to die because some people die and, if we make ourselves different from them, maybe we don't have to?
—Bellow, The Victim (1947)
"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?"—True and false is what human beings say; and it is in language that they agree. This is no agreement in opinions, but rather in form of life.
—Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 241 (1953)
What do we mean by mindedness? Contextualizing a field he has often criticized as unwilling to contextualize itself, Richard Rorty has recently singled out the decade of the 1950s as a watershed in Anglo-American philosophical responses to this question. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953), Sellars's "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956)—with the appearance of these seminal texts, says Rorty, analytic philosophy began to evolve from its earlier, positivistic form into its later, "post-positivist" phase, one that was "beyond" empiricism and rationalism. 1 As Rorty himself would ruefully admit, many analytic philosophers certainly continue to ask what he would consider outdated questions about mind and knowledge. Still, excluding the researchers puzzled by what it is like to be a bat or by the possible existence of zombies, a survey of some of the major figures in contemporary philosophy of mind bears out Rorty's judgment about Sellars, Quine, Wittgenstein, and the importance of the 1950s. [End Page 391] With his gift for syntheses, Rorty, for one, has made regular reference to all three philosophers. 2 Traces of Sellars can be readily located in John McDowell and Robert Brandom, and echoes of Quine can be heard throughout the work of Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and Daniel Dennett. 3 For his part, Wittgenstein has influenced all these thinkers, but an account of his legacy would force us to extend this list to include others, such as Charles Taylor, Annette Baier, and Stephen Toulmin. 4
Whatever the local differences between these various "post- positivistic" philosophers (and, coming from different backgrounds, they inevitably exhibit a number of important differences), 5 the common thread running through all their work is a hostility towards the modern Cartesian tradition. All of these philosophers, that is, are suspicious—in a way that, as should become clear as my discussion goes on, is both similar and importantly different from their more celebrated continental counterparts—that the characteristically modern quest for certainty, the search for a "method" that will unequivocally distinguish mere dreams and appearances from indubitable knowledge, is ultimately a philosopher's invention. Most immediately, this suspicion forces a reexamination of what the Cartesian tradition considers the paradigm of certainty, i.e., the self-certainty of the conscious subject. Whereas Descartes presents what has been called a "subjectivist-individualist" picture of a person, in which the individual is the locus of self-conscious thought and the ground of moral autonomy, 6 philosophers working after Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Quine are deeply skeptical of first-person "introspection": self-understanding emerges not through some inner mental gymnastics, but through the shared linguistic and social habits of a particular community. This in turn demands an attention to the historical contingencies of knowing and acting, and leads us to seek not proofs and axioms, but thick descriptions of...