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Christopher Norris, New Idols of the Cave: On the Limits of Anti-Realism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0719050928 (hbk); 0719050936 (pbk). Price: £40, $49.95 (hbk); £14.95, $24.95 (pbk).

  • Mary Kelly Persyn

…more information

  • Mary Kelly Persyn
    The University of Virginia's College at Wise

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Christopher Norris' latest book provocatively continues his leftist-realist critique of postmodernism, anti-realism, and relativism. As he argues for realism, Norris also invests substantial energy in establishing a defense of 'truth'; it is no accident that four of his recent books include the word as part of their titles. Norris thus contributes to the arguments against neo-pragmatist treatments of truth such as those propounded by Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, arguments which Norris has identified as fallacies "raised...to a high point of sophistical ingenuity masquerading as straightforward commonsense wisdom" (What's wrong with postmodernism, 5). [1] Norris' strong words constitute an intervention in a debate that could well carry significant sociopolitical consequences, and this real-world bridge will be appealing to many readers.

At the same time, however, Norris' reasoning can be disconcerting to those of us who prefer to hold a noncommittal and more flexible view of 'truth.' Truth, Norris maintains, is not context-dependent; any attempt by theory, or rather by what he calls 'anti-theory,' to claim that truth is relative will backfire in the 'real' (political) world. [2] Norris' commitment to convincing his readers that theory has 'real' consequences beyond the academic-professional world has always been clear and impassioned, but readers should be warned that New idols of the cave is more academic and technical than, for example, Truth and ethics. While New idols of the cave does not focus primarily on Norris' habitual defense of truth and the 'project of modernity,' these goals are its subtext, and they help to clarify what Norris is after in this more technical work of philosophy.

In New idols of the cave, Norris argues that recent Anglo-American philosophy, and particularly the philosophy of science, has conclusively rejected positivism and empiricism in favor of a linguistic-hermeneutic focus. Norris maintains that the dominant philosophers of science now reject any distinction between the derivation of scientific knowledge and the interpretation of a cultural object. In its focus upon language as the "ultimate horizon of enquiry," Norris argues, philosophy has nullified intentionality, meaning, and especially truth by making all signification context-dependent; in criticizing the use of relativism to evaluate scientific truth claims, Norris rejects the argument that truth is constructed by paradigms, cultural situations, or interpretive communities (7, 1). In this sense, Norris' book propounds a highly intelligent, thoroughly documented, non-reactionary defense of what might best be called neo-positivism that at the same time continues his long-standing support of Derridean deconstruction. [3]

According to Norris, much of the trouble within the anti-realist paradigm has been created by a lack of theoretical rigor; many philosophers (and literary critics for that matter), he argues, have failed to take into account what he maintains to be the difference between observation and interpretation. Norris therefore takes as a main goal the creation of a distinction between

a domain of 'intransitive' (observer-independent) real-world objects, processes, and events, and the 'transitive' realm of knowledge-constitutive interests and values where such criticism has a genuine—maybe a decisive—role to play.

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In other words, he argues that there exist propositions that are open neither to interpretation nor to relativism. Extended to literature and to literary criticism, the argument enters the fray of debate over intentionality, "truth," cultural relativism, and "interpretive communities." Norris' distinction is perhaps easier to draw in the realm of science than in the realm of literature, if one accepts (as does Norris) the proposition that these two disciplines are in fact different and mutually independent. Nevertheless, he successfully challenges relativism to become more rigorous by making distinctions between those things that depend on interpretation and those things that do not, thus opposing the "reign of universal hermeneutics" (8).

Norris' first chapter, "Some dilemmas of post-empiricism," traces the faults of relativism in part to Heideggerean phenomenology, which he reads as overly subjective; Heidegger thus provides an important early focus for his anti-realist critique. Heidegger's critique of episteme and technology has served to demonize science and rationality, argues Norris, and his advocacy of aletheia or revelation has pushed philosophy towards a more solipsistic depth-hermeneutical approach. According to Norris, for Heidegger

it is not so much a question of what speakers mean to communicate through language as of language somehow revealing—or more often withholding—a truth inaccessible to any but the most profound hermeneutical inquiry.

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Norris states that Heidegger posits language as "the very 'horizon' of meaning, truth or intelligibility" instead of seeing language as only a means by which multiple individuals can observe, discuss, and think about "beliefs, truth-claims, propositional contents, or the attitudes held in respect of them" (16). Heidegger finds truth in language, rather than seeing language as a means by which one might arrive at the truth; he espouses aletheia rather than episteme, revelation rather than propositional truth, argues Norris, and therefore destroys one's ability to claim that objective truth exists at all. Here Norris very skillfully points out that Heidegger has shifted the grounds of debate from the transcendental signified of the divine (the concern of Plato and Augustine) to the transcendental consciousness of the author (as Heidegger famously states, "No thing is where the word is lacking"; "the being of language becomes the language of being"). An important difference exists between Norris' claims for the propositional, observational character of scientific language and Heidegger's claims for the more primary, creative character of poetic language or art. The distinction, however, is extremely difficult to maintain, and Norris provides valuable analytical tools for such a task. Norris' purpose in explicating Heidegger here is to demonstrate the linguistic-hermeneutic connection to pragmatic, 'post-analytical,' anti-realist thinkers. While some might find Norris' reading of post-analytic philosophy here to be a bit extreme due to the great rigor with which he follows assumptions to their possible consequences, he provides a clear picture of the issues involved which would prove useful to both realists and anti-realists alike.

The second chapter's title is "For realism in semantics"; its discussion of Empson, Richards, and interpretation is of particular interest because it tangentially engages such problems as the canon wars and contemporary debates over undergraduate education. Again Norris takes up what he perceives as the overly subjective hermeneutical approach, extending to the realm of interpretation his critique of phenomenology as anti-realist and solipsistic. In his discussion of these matters in chapter 2, he offers a defense of intention-based semantics (IBS) by drawing on William Empson's claim that "complex" words "can carry propositional attitudes and hence act as a vehicle or focus for beliefs, meanings, and intentions" (45). These words carry intention by employing two or more definitions simultaneously and "thus forming an intraverbal equation" (45). Empson's goal, and by extension Norris', is to demonstrate that meaning can be carried by individual complex words, as opposed to the holistic point of view that depends more upon contexts of associated usage. Norris traces developments in logical empiricism and phenomenalism, along the way analyzing Niels Bohr's conversion of Richards' stand on semantics due to the wave-particle theory of quantum mechanics. As a result of Bohr's work, Richards radically modified his theory of poetry as "pseudo-statement" to arrive rather at a point where he could see poetry as "providing a different (complementary) perspective on issues of shared human concern" (67)—thus preserving poetic 'truth' in the face of science. In this chapter, then, Norris addresses the issues of construction and context but, with reference to the philosophy of science, opposes the collapse of the distinction between the object observed and the mode of observing it (71).

Norris' discussion of deconstruction in chapters three and four, titled respectively "Deconstruction, ontology, and philosophy of science" and "Deconstructing anti-realism," continues his longstanding defense of Derrida while at the same time enlisting him on the side of realism and the Enlightenment-oriented 'project of modernity'—a sleight of hand which could well surprise new readers. Yet to the extent that deconstruction opposes phenomenology's overemphasis on the perceiving subject, Norris makes a logical choice in that his argument opposes the constructivist and relativist schools of thought. Derrida's 'post-analytic' arguments in both 'The Supplement of Copula' and 'White Mythology' form the basis for Norris' critique; he is most interested in Derrida's efforts to

support that other kind of depth-ontological approach, one that accepts both the necessity of categorical judgement (in more Kantian terms: of bringing intuitions under adequate concepts) and the requirement that such concepts answer to something in the nature of physical reality.

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Derrida's claimed attachment to 'physical reality' affects his treatment of metaphor, claims Norris, in that its logic presupposes an "ontologically prior domain" (96). No matter how tangled the web of linguistic referentiality, its "essential truth" still rests on a necessarily real world—according to Norris reading Derrida reading Aristotle. Literary theorists and critics, however, may well ask after the connection between the philosophy of science and the study of culture. While Norris' arguments tend to use as examples the realm of science, he includes cultural studies as a target in his critique of "anti-realism"—yet one could well argue that the constructivist arguments that it propounds do not deny a "real world," but rather make claims about how language reflects that world. Surely one would not contend that a novelistic or poetic description is tied strictly to the "ontologically prior domain" claimed by Norris; the cultural-studies argument that a description must be read relative to its author's philosophy and life situation cannot be allied with the anti-realist paradigm that he rejects.

Chapter five, "Quantum mechanics and interpretation theory," ponders the conundrum of scientific theories that must use extant language to describe a "reality" not yet representable. Norris notes (and rejects) Bohr's contention that quantum mechanics cannot "in principle" be represented the the language of classical physics; essentially, the problem as described by Bohr is that the new theory holds together two contradictory concepts (for example, waves and particles) within a language accustomed to "continuity and univocity" (Norris citing Honner; 159). In other words, a condition can exist and be fully "real" while at the same time lying outside the boundaries of our current understanding and, thus, beyond our ability to encompass it in language. Norris' objection to Bohr has to do with the perceived extremity of his position; Norris argues that this theory of ontological relativity creates too great a distance between quantum-physical reality and "whatever can be known, observed, or said about it in any language" (161). Norris examines applications of this problem to ontological-relativist theories in the rest of the chapter; for example, he notes that the tendency of cultural-relativist theories to claim that "reality" is constructed by a culture's own "language" or interpretive framework has the potential consequence of destroying transcultural communication—a claim that warrants serious thought.

Chapter six, "Natural kinds, possible worlds, and space-time covariance," concludes the book by again taking issue with scientific (and, by extension, ethical) relativists. Norris argues that if physics and other bodies of scientific knowledge are to have any meaning at all, certain established (Einsteinian) principles must be followed—even in the thought-experiments that replace 'real' investigation when the appropriate technologies have not yet developed. The establishment of consistent comparative frameworks also takes a central role in his rejection of cultural relativism on ethical grounds. Postmodernists like Lyotard argue that "there exist no shared criteria by which to communicate or judge between [interpretive communities, world-views, etc.]," notes Norris, and go even further than that by claiming that judgement is ethically wrong because it breaches the right of every discourse "to make sense by its own epistemic, ethical, or evaluative lights" (220). The irony is sharp: in recognizing the right of all cultures,groups, or communities to establish their own world-views, we cut ourselves off from them, argues Norris. One might note that the "shared criteria by which to communicate" might well be constructed cooperatively, but Norris' point is well made. His main purpose, after all, is to argue that the ultimate consequences of ontological relativism have not been sufficiently examined and that it "has not so much been proven as taken on board, across a range of present-day disciplines, without adequate critical scrutiny" (243).

New idols of the cave, while arcane and overly technical in some parts, offers those interested in philosophy and literary and cultural theory an alternative to post-analytical and postmodern paradigms without resorting to neoconservatism or left-bashing. Norris writes from the British Marxist left and ironically forwards a different kind of pragmatism in opposition to what he clearly brands as the irresponsible pragmatism of a politically 'neutral' postmodernism that in fact, in his view, promotes solipsism and political irresponsibility. His defense of the possibility of truth and the responsibilities accruing to interpretation and theory will be refreshing and encouraging to those who agree with him and productively challenging to those who do not.

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