rorty, orwell and the meaning of nineteen eighty-four

From James Conant’s, “Freedom, Cruelty, and Truth: Rorty Versus Orwell” [in the anthology Rorty and His Critics]:

[i][b]Rorty takes the following claim to be an uncontroversial point of common ground between himself and those readers of Orwell with whom he disagrees: the major aim—or at least one of the major aims—of Nineteen Eighty-Four is to offer an imaginative redescription of Soviet Russia. The disagreement, as Rorty represents it, turns on how to answer the following two questions: [1] how is such a redescription accomplished and [2] what is the point of furnishing such a redesription? As regards 1], this is how Rorty describes what the readers of Orwell with whom he disagrees think:

'[Orwell] accomplished the redescription by reminding us of some plain truths—moral truths whose obviousness is on par with “two plus two is four”

As an example of a reader of Orwell who says things like this, Rorty quotes the following extract from an essay by Lionel Trilling:

‘Orwell’s native gifts are perhaps not of the transcendent kind; they have their roots in a quality of mind that is as frequent as it is modest. This qualtity may be described as a sort of moral centrality, a directness of relation to moral—and political—fact.’

This suggests that Orwell is especially good at doing something which for the moment we may provisionally gloss as ‘getting at the truth’. This, in turn, suggests the following answer to [1] : it is Orwell’s ‘gift’ for ‘getting at the truth’ which allows him to furnish a compelling redescription. Rorty takes this to be the answer to [1] that readers such as Trilling endorse. Rorty, moreover, thinks it is a terrible answer because he takes it to rest on a Realist conception of what it is that makes descriptions [or resdescriptions] compelling. How is Rorty able to tell that readers of Orwell such as Trilling are captivated by Realism? By the vocabulary they employ. The two passages above contain words like ‘plain truths,’ ‘moral truths,’ [worse still ‘moral truths’ which are obvious], ‘a directness of relation to fact’ [and worse of all, ‘a directness of relation to moral fact’]—words which trigger Rorty’s philosophical alarms.

As regards [2], here is how Rorty summarizes what he thinks Trilling et al take the point of Orwell’s novel to be:

‘Orwell teaches us to set our faces against all those sneaky intellectuals who try to tell us that the truth is ‘out there,’ that what counts as possible truth is a function of the vocabulary you use, and what counts as a truth is a function of the rest of your beliefs. Orwell has, in short, been read as a realist philosopher, a defender of common sense against its cultured, ironist despisers.’[/i][/b]

I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four three times. The first time I had just been discharged from the Army. I happened upon Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, tinkered with becoming an Objectivist and saw Orwell’s book as a scathing critique of “collectivism”. A few years later, however, having matriculated into college, I finished my transformation into a Marxist. When I reread the book for an English class I saw it then as a scathing rebuke of Soviet collectivism. Socialism could work I rationalized…if it was the right socialism. The Soviet metholdogy was the culprit.

Then about 18 to 20 years ago, having reconfigured philosophically yet again into an existentialist, I began to see the “message” more as one revolving around the very notion of “the truth” itself. It wasn’t necessarily this or that rendition of it that was “wrong”…but the very attempt to ensnare it, to encompass it [morally and politically] as though it really were “out there” to be discovered by me [and others].

This is not to say, however, that the way in which I interpret Nineteen Eighty-Four now is what Orwell meant to convey. I don’t know what Orwell meant to convey. I don’t even particularly care. I will leave that for the literary scholars and the academics to sort through and “resolve”. But it is possible in my opinion to view the “message” in two very different ways. On the one hand, you might argue Orwell was not at all opposed to moral or political truth…only that the manner in which it was embraced by the group-think collectivists of the Soviet ilk was not the right truth. Our truth is okay…just not their truth. Or, perhaps, our methodology [constitutional democracy] is fine but not anything weighted down by violence. Well, give or take the occasional struggle against, say, the Nazis or South African apartheid?

With moral truths, in other words, the medium by which they are pursued rather than the message they try to convey might be the place to begin your probe of politically correct and incorrect agendas.

Not that either approach will actually bear fruit if the whole point is to bear the right fruit. Unless, of course, you believe it is and your own agenda already has.

And that is the human condition, right? Nineteen hundred and eighty-four completely conflicting and contradictory groups out there all claiming to have found The Truth.

If that’s not a psychological profile of the species, what is?

I think, taking the fairly unarguable view that Orwell presented the 1984 regime as a Bad Thing, it’s clear that he was very much against the view of truth being what was agreed upon - when O’Brien tortures Smith it’s clear that he’s contrasting the party’s truth with some real truth (the number of fingers he’s holding up, IIRC).

He certainly concedes that people can be made to call something untrue, true - but not that that is the truth, at all. It’s fairly clear that the truth - the real truth - is something that simply doesn’t matter to the party, and it’s explicitly shown as such. Which is why it’s surprising that Rorty is claiming Orwell as one of his.

Of course, Rorty would probably say that that’s just my view, his is just as valid, let’s all hold hands. Everyone’s a winner, and no child goes home without a present. :stuck_out_tongue:

But more Bad Things happen when those who believe that what they encompass intellectually and morally – and then embody politically – is the only Good Thing; and then come to power and turn this Good Thing into Fascism or Communism or unfettered Capitalism. And, in turn, demonstrating the number of fingers you are holding up is different from demonstrating that how you view the world [and human behavior] rationally and ethically is the duty and obligation of every other citizen to emulate as well.

Thus it comes down to making that crucial distinction between what can in fact be demonstrated as true for everyone and what can in fact be demonstrated only to be points of view.

And while there is less debate regarding the ethos of Big Brother’s totalitarian dystopia there is considerably more debate regarding the vast majority of moral and political issues that have cleaved the human species now for thousands of years. And, again, I mean cleaved in both senses of that word. Certain value judgments cleave people together but this Truth is then used to cleave others from the State and send them to re-education camps. Or even to death camps.

For, among other things, thoughtcrimes.

Would he concede no one can be made to view any one particular moral/meaning/message of his novel as the truth? Would he concede those who don’t share that moral/meaning/message are not necessarily irrational or immoral?

Would he concoct newspeak or doublethink enabling others to grasp this moral/meaning/message?

And O’Brien and his ilk can be seen to be what happens when you embrace the Truth to the point it becomes the end that justifies any and all means. The end here being the capacity to sustain the State against the Winstons and the Julias and all those who seek to do harm to what some perceive to be a utopia instead. Or, at any rate, “the best of all possible worlds”.

The crucial point being the Truth is applied not only to objects governed by the laws of physics but to subjects governed by minds able to view the Truth about some things only as the ever evolving relationship between both contiguous and conflictng points of view.

Yes, he would no doubt say this regarding your interpretation of the meaning Orwell imparted in Nineteen Eighty-Four; but I doubt he would say this if you insisted the book was written by Nathanial Hawthorne instead.

Or social democracy, or whatever. You’d rather politicians did what they think is wrong?

I don’t believe Rorty makes this distinction. In fact, I believe he fairly consistently and explicitly rejects any subjective/objective divide.

So what? It’s only a point of view that this is undesirable, no?

As I say, I think it’s fairly clear in the book that The Party doesn’t care about Truth; it’s a tool in the acquisition and maintenance of Power. Hence O’Brien’s breaking of Smith. There is no officially-embraced truth that the party clings to, it’s a matter of convenience in order to stay in power. We’ve always been at war with Oceania, and so forth.

But I’ve not read it in a while, I should do so. As you point out, it’s a book that you can read on different levels and from different angles.

Many angles. I think Orwell is perhaps under-credited as a writer (as opposed as the writer of 1984.)

He studied under Aldous Huxley, whose family/father worked, and was friends Pavlov. This was around the time Tavistock was being created, which Huxley had close ties to as well. Obviously these guys were up to manipulating people, and exploring mass psychology. Dog testing. Children testing. These figures of history were into some pragmatic/sadistic stuff. Anyways, In comes Orwell, not really an elite in his view of common man. I think he referred to his family’s economical positioning as ‘lower-upper-middle class.’ Orwell gets some experience watching Huxley teach at some kind of special school they were testing out once they were done… testing out kids. I forget what it was called. A lot of what Orwell saw there influenced the novel. The screens shouting at you, etc. So I think he stayed for like 2 or 3 years before leaving, as I think if you’re not from the psychopathic-ish bloodline group you’d probably find that group fucked, and perhaps want to write a novel about their influence on the time. The school was only around for a short period of time anyways. Like I said it was a test school.

Orwell distanced himself from Huxley and the rest of the gang, and eventually pumped out 1984.

He ended up getting cancer of the tongue.

Rorty gave up philosophy eventually and turned to creative writing. The “out there”/“in there” conflict on which most 20th century philosophy is based had, for him, no resolution as stated. Finding how to state what “truth” or “reality” might mean beyond this seeming dichotomy of perspectives was something he finally chose not to persue.
Huxley and Orwell could both be considered “pragmatic moralists” in the sense that both saw history from the “should be” perspective. Dennett in “Consciousness Explained” desribes this sort of perspective as “historical revisionism.” We, who believe in “shoulds”, look back on historical events from the vantage point of what we have learned, not necessarily from the complexity of events and interpretations of events that occurred then and there.

I don’t include “social democracy” in with all the others. And that is because this form of political discourse is more in line with Karl Popper’s “open society”. The enemy here is less The Party than the reality of political economy, crony capitalism and the Bilderberg ilk. At least in this day and age. Here “the truth” is always for sale. But to the extent the powers that be manage to keep the ideological and religious purveyers of Good Things at bay this may well be the best of all possible worlds.

But that point of view is always going to be relative to others, isn’t it?


Thus it comes down to making that crucial distinction between what can in fact be demonstrated as true for everyone and what can in fact be demonstrated only to be points of view.

Be that as it may, I don’t intend to be drawn into an epistemological discussion regarding what it truly means to make this distinction. The laws of physics, mathematics, logic, truth by definition etc. are objective enough for me. They are applicable to everyone.

Again, the distinction I like to make here is between abortion as a medical procedure and abortion as a moral conflagration. That’s what intrigues me. Even Rorty’s “ironists” don’t have much to disargree about regarding the former.


[i]Certain value judgments cleave people together but this Truth is then used to cleave others from the State and send them to re-education camps. Or even to death camps.

For, among other things, thoughtcrimes.[/i]

Yes, in a world sans God [an omniscient point of view], that is true. A thought will always be construed – and then judged – as a crime only to the extent you believe everyone must think like you do. And that failure to do so is punishable by the law.

Which makes it all the more crucial that we choose sides in our social democracy and try to convince as many others as possible to see things our ways. It may not be against the law not to but if the other side is in power they get to pass the laws.

It’s just that, out in the world we live in – the real world – this always seems so much easier regarding some conflicts than others.

But caring about the truth is even more problematic because that takes us into the realm of human emotions and psychology. In other words, into world of motivation and intention. And here both science and philosophy flounder about all the more.

Is the quest for normative Truth more an emotional and psychological construct than we’d care to admit? If this is the case I suspect it will be particularly distressing for the folks who identitfy more with Mr Spock than Captain Kirk.

Re David Hume, there may be no way in which to grasp “the whole truth” objectively if by grasping truth wholly and objectively one means a precise understanding of cause and effect going all the way back to whatever is “behind” existence itself. But obviously there are certain correlations we encounter in the course of living our lives that never seem to diviate from what we have come to call “the laws of physics”. Or “reality”. And, in turn, there are mathematical truths and analytical truths and truths that are predicated on the very definition we give to words.

O_H seems more concerned however that some behind The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four were not interested in any truths at all. Instead, they pursued a nihilistic perspective bent on profiting [or sustaining power] from a social order in which everyone blindly accepted [or at least pretended to accept] what The Party said was true. Even if that professed truth was patently false.

I liken this mentality – at least somewhat – to the agenda embraced today by the very powerful crony capitalist practitioners of realpoltik.

To wit:

wikipedia: politics based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises

It is a nihilism that may or may not be analogous to Huxley’s and Orwell’s “pragmatic moralists”. It depends I suppose on how closely you link it to the various renditions of social democracy.

But “should be” regarding what? One can look back on the historical events regarding any number of moral conflagrations and learn lessons that are entirely contradictory. For example, what have we learned from the past regarding the abortion wars that allows us to articulate a more reasoned argument respecting what should be done when “X” is pregnant with an unwanted fetus and wants to abort it?

“Should be” means what we now know should be a legitimate take on any historical event. It’s holding up 21st century understandings as analyzer/evaluater of whatever happened before now. That’s fine with archeology; it’s ineffective for comprehensions of sociology, history, religion or philosophy.
None of the historical examples given here are without the bias of historical revisionism.

But my point involves discussing those things that happened in historical events we can acquire a legitimate [objective] take on and those things we can’t.

For example, there may be misconceptions or erroneous information regarding what exactly happened when the federal government intervened to save the banks during the economic crisis a few years back. A sequence of events did in fact unfold in a particular order. But what can never be established objectively is a conclusion that this was – morally – the right thing to do. That can only be a point of view.

My own narrative revolves around the incestuous relationship between New York and Washington.

Yet I may well be wrong about this. Here, however, I can only wait for an argument that demonstrates this.

It’s been a while, but I read 1984 as a political satire. Orwell was Satirizing the soviet system, or at least the government of the Soviet union during that time. I’m not sure what truth per se has to do with it. Again, it’s been a while.

As for the incestuous relationship between Washington and new York, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I think some bad decisions were made in some of the bailouts. And some good ones. There was some heavy petting with Detroit, if you’ll recall. But in all, I think it’s within generally good practice that the government and Wall ST stay tight. if we assume that every time there is even consultation between the two, we’ll take a different view, of course. But despite mistakes, I’m not sure I’d rather there bee some Berlin Wall between them. There is no such separation in other industrial countries.

No, I don’t think crony capitalism is just in the eye [or the mind] of the beholder. It can be thoroughly documented at sites like Just plug in the names of the most powerful politicians in Washington and start connecting the dots. And there is little or no distinction here between Democrats and Republicans. Not with respect to contributions from the big banks and the finance industry.

Or, of course, the auto industry.

As to whether this is good or bad, moral or immoral, that is clearly in the minds of the beholders. The facts and the figures [and the dots they connect] are there in black and white. What they mean however is merely a value judgment.

What might be construed as rather Orwellean here though is the gap between the way in which American democracy is often portrayed to the American people [one man, one vote…the rule of law…the separation of power…the government of the people, by the people, for the people etc.] and the way it actually functions instead to sustain the interests of a very real ruling class.

Though not quite in a Marxist sense, right? Things are always going to be a lot more complicated than the ideologues portray them.

You’re missing my point. I am not disputing that there is a close connection between Washington and Wall St. I am disputing that it’s incest. In some states, first cousins can do it.

Like it or not, we actually agree here.

That’s just overstated. The fact is that the average voter wouldn’t have a fucking clue which course to take in a large financial crisis.

I think incest is a perfect way of describing it. So I disagree here with Faust.

Thank you for reading.