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).[Record]

  • Mary Kelly Persyn

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

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 " a high point of sophistical ingenuity masquerading as straightforward commonsense wisdom" (What's wrong with postmodernism, 5). 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. 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. 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 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 …