Social realism, strong misreading and the neo-pragmatist sensibility

Since reading this astonishing book by Neil Gross earlier in the year I have been increasingly aware of the latent influence of pragmatism on my thought. I used to really like Richard Rorty but came to think it was just a phase, explicable in terms of the resources his work gave me to articulate my gnawing dissatisfaction with the philosophy I was studying at the time. However since the Neil Gross book sparked this particularly intensive bout of theoretical naval gazing, it’s become obvious to me that I was slightly too hasty in declaring pragmatism a phase. There’s a significant (Peircean) pragmatist influence in Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity which has in turn shaped how I do sociology, as well as how I understand what it is I do,  more than anything else. There’s also a significant pragmatist impulse within the work of Nicos Mouzelis was has, in the last couple of years, strongly shaped my understanding of the means and ends of sociological theory.

However there’s also the neo-pragmatist sensibility which, in retrospect, was what attracted me to Rorty in the first place. I’m currently in the process of occasionally going back to his work to consider what this sensibility is and the extent to which it’s compatible with the kind of social realism I’m now entirely persuaded by (i.e. ontological realism, epistemic relativism, judgemental rationality, the social as open system, fallibilism, a relational & emergentist ontology). One of the things Mouzelis has helped me to realise is that my interest in these questions is predominately practical, which conversely explains my frustration with the sort of philosophy I used to study. I want to understand how these debates do or do not have practical implications for how people study the social world. I want to understand how theoretical discourse is embedded with conflicting or collaborative networks of practitioners framed by intellectual traditions and how these interactions in turn reproduce or transform those traditions and shape the environment in which future practitioners will do their work.

It’s in thinking about what people actually do with theory that I’ve come back to Rorty’s notion of strong misreading, which appropriately enough seems to have been derived from a wilful misreading of Harold Bloom’s concept of the same name. This is an approach to reading which comes quite naturally to me:

The critic asks neither the author nor the text about their intentions but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose. He makes the text refer to whatever is relevant to that purpose. He does this by imposing a vocabulary – a “grid,” in Foucault’s terminology – on the text which may have nothing to do with any vocabulary used in the text or by its author, and seeing what happens. The model here is not the curious collector of clever gadgets taking them apart to see what makes them work and carefully ignoring any extrinsic end they may have, but the psychoanalyst blithely interpreting a dream or a joke as a symptom of homicidal mania …. The strong misreader, like Foucault or Bloom, prides himself on the same thing, on being able to get more out of the text than its author or its intended audience could possibly have found there … The strong misreader doesn’t care about the distinction between discovery and creation, finding and making. He doesn’t think this is a useful distinction, any more than Nietzsche or James did. He is in it for what he can get out of it, not for the satisfaction of getting something right.

– Richard Rorty, The Rorty Reader, Pg 131

I find this notion much more challenging now than I did when I first encountered it seven years ago as a masters student. I take Rorty’s point to be that a preoccupation with uncovering the truth of the text, finding the key which will allow us to unlock the code concealed within, distracts from the real business of intellectual discourse: keeping the conversation going. So while his advocacy of this could be seen as violently deconstructive, it seems much more helpful to me to foreground the constructive notion incipient within it – if we move beyond the register of correct and incorrect interpretation then we begin to have much more fruitful (and interesting) conversations which build on a text and move beyond it.

This is where I see a compatibility between the neo-pragmatist sensibility and social realism. A sociologically self-aware and methodologically sensitive social realism offers us standards of utility in relation to potential (mis)readings of texts which Rorty’s aestheticism tends to shut down. So the social realist strong misreader wants theoretical texts to provoke interesting and useful conversations about how the conceptual insights of the text can be practically applied to the study of the social world. The point is not to say that theoretical discourse should be subjugated to the demands of methodologists and practitioners, as a ‘standing reserve’ of intellectual resources waiting to be mined, but simply to say that talking about theory doesn’t necessitate that we adopt the conceptual and normative standards endorsed and enforced by the theoreticians.

Though having said all this, I delayed my PhD by a month earlier this summer when I was consumed by the sudden anxiety, prompted by encountering a pathetically facile misreading, that the critique of Giddens in the first chapter of my thesis was predicated on a comparable misconstrual. So I diligently returned to his books in order to reassure myself that I had indeed discovered the truth of the text.  I’m not sure how to square either this concern or my response to it with what I’ve written above. I can think of other examples, which I’m not going to write about lest this post become far too long. But there does seem to be a theory-practice inconsistency here which intrigues me.

I’m also concerned that ‘strong misreading’ licenses my eclecticism in a negative way and that, on some level, it appeals to me because I’m someone who tends to read widely but shallowly. So making a virtue of productive misinterpretation, ‘getting more from the texts than the authors intended’, in fact only serves to free me from the nagging feeling that I’ve not read deeply enough into an area to justifiably make the claims that I want to make. Given the general direction of travel within intellectual life, in which professional rewards goes to those who can generate novelty by combining existing ideational material in new and attention-grabbing ways, there’s also something potentially subversive about slow reading. Having spent the summer blogging my way through Margaret Archer’s recent books I can certainly see the appeal of doing this. But is this necessarily driven by the impulse to find the ‘truth of the text’ or could it simply be a particular sort of intellectual conversation which can only take place when it is grounded on a concerned and attentive reading? So rather than accurate or inaccurate could we usefully think about attentiveness or inattentiveness?

This post is an example of sitting down to write one thing and in fact writing another. I intended to write something quick about Rorty’s notion of ‘strong misreading’ and instead ended up writing something much more exploratory, in which I raised a number of questions which had been inchoately rattling around in my head for the last few months. If you accept my understanding of how I use blogging (often as an externalisation of an internal conversation) then this post could be seen as an example of what I’m interested in with the ‘neo-pragmatist sensibility’. I had a particular object (a specific concept articulated by a specific philosopher) which i intended to write about and, through doing so, I found myself writing about  many other things as well. This is a peculiarly monological example of what interests me about ‘productive’ conversations. The intellectual standards we endorse and enforce have implications for kinds of conversations, external or otherwise, which they give rise to.

Even though I reject Rorty’s aestheticism, in which he judges the value of these conversations in entirely aesthetic terms*, I think his sensitivity to the dialogical consequences of intellectual norms is very important. I guess a long term project of mine, albeit one that’s a million miles away from crystallising into any sort of concrete form, would be to try and recover this impulse so as to rearticulate it within a generic framework of social theory working at a level of generality which encompasses everything that shares the belief in the possibility of social knowledge to be produced through social scientific inquiry. Theoretical schism bores the hell out of me (though I think some of the issues at stake are sometimes important in a practical sense) and, as divisive a figure as Rorty is philosophically, it increasingly seems to me that there are elements of his work which could be recovered and reconstituted as a productive resource for social scientific practice.

*How could he do otherwise given that he has collapsed the distinction between what is rhetoric and what isn’t? This move has always baffled me given that, as far as I can see, it reduces theoretical discourse to the status of crap poetry.


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