Verum est factum: Critical Realism and the Discourse of Autonomy

by Michael Morton
Verum est factum: Critical Realism and the Discourse of Autonomy
Michael Morton
The German Quarterly
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Duke University

Verum est factum: Critical Realism and the Discourse of Autonomy

In the final paragraph of The Structure of Scientifc Revolutions Thomas Kuhn at last comes face to face with the central issue around which his exposition has been circling for some 170 pages.

Anyone who has followed the argument this far will nevertheless feel the need to ask why the evolutionary process [of the development of science] should work. What must nature, including man, be like in order that science be possible at all? Why should scientific communities be able to reach a firm consensus unattain- able in other fields? Why should consen- sus endure across one paradigm change after another? And why should paradigm change invariably produce an instrument more perfect in any sense than those known before?'

The reader hoping for an answer to these questions is disappointed. "That problem," says Kuhn, "-What must the world be like in order that man may know it? -. . . is as old as science itself, and it remains unan~wered."~

In one sense, of course, this is true, today no less than when Kuhn's extremely influential study first appeared, for we are still far from possessing a theory of knowledge capable of dealing with this prob- lem in all its manifold ramifications. In another sense, however, I think the statement reflects a significant oversight, for since the second half of the eighteenth century at the latest we have surely known-at least in general terms -what such a theory would have to look lie at such time as it would finally come to be worked out in detail.

Prior to the latter decades of the eight- eenth century the history of Western philos-

ophy, considered simply with regard to its structure, consists essentially of a series of movements back and forth between the poles of dogmatism and skepticism. Assertions of positive doctrine alternate with radical ques- tioning~ of the attempt to establish definitively the truth about anything, with each of these directions of thought eventually calling forth the other in response. For whatever reason -and this is a question probably meriting further study in its own right- the names of the dogmatic philosophers in many instances tend to be the somewhat better known ones. Nonetheless, the overall pattern seems un- mistakable. Foreshadowed in the opposition between the Parmenidean doctrine of the per- manence and unalterability of Being on the one hand and the Heraclitean doctrine of per- petual flux on the other, it appears in full- blown form in the clash between Socrates and his opponents among the Sophists, notably Protagoras and Gorgias. Following Socrates, both Plato and Aristotle- though within the context of metaphysical dogmatism themselves philosophical antipodes in their own right-together become targets of the skep- tical critique of Pyrrho and his principal disci- ple Tirnon, as well as that of later Pyrrhonists like Aenesidemus and Sextus Empiricus. The teachings of Zeno the Stoic are attacked on skeptical grounds by Arcesilaus, and both Stoicism and Epicureanism-though themselves by no means interchangeable -nevertheless provide common grist for the skeptical mill of Carneades. The entire tradition of an- tique skepticism receives perhaps its most sweeping formulation in the writings of Agrip- pa.3 In the medieval and Renaissance periods, both Scholastic philosophers such as Aquinas

The German Quarterlj 64.2 (1991) 149

and Duns Scotus and, later, Rerformers such as Luther and Calvin are confronted by Ock- ham, Erasmus, and Montaigne, among oth- ers. And with the dawn of the modern era the pattern continues unabated. Cartesianism finds itself under attack by Gassendi, Huet, and (with important qualifications) Mersenne, as does the rationalism of Leibniz and his followers (most notably Wolff) by Foucher, Bayle, and ultimately, Hume."

Beginning in the 1760s and 1770s, however, a number of thinkers, chiefly in Germany, undertake to point the way out of this peren- nial dogmatic-skeptical aporia. They do so in what is evidently the only way possible: by effecting what is variously known as the "criti- cal" or the "epistemological turn" in philo- sophical thinking. Kant, Herder, Lenz, and others-important differences among them in other respects notwithstanding-share a common recognition that dogmatism and skepticism, while ostensibly diametrically op- posed to one another, are actually no more than two sides of a single coin. Both these positions base their conception of knowledge on the traditional model of the adaequatio in- tellectus ad rem. Both take for granted that if objects of knowledge are available to us at all, their mode of existence must be apart from and prior to that of the knower and the act of cognition. And both therefore construe the task of achieving knowledge as a matter of somehow bringing the knowing mind into ac- cord with these already present objects. Seen in this light, the disagreement between the dogmatic and the skeptical positions, which initially appears to represent as pronounced a disparity in world views as possible, reveals itself in the end as nothing more than a differ- ence of opinion on whether that project is capable of being carried out or not. The dog- matist says, "Yes, of course we can have cer- tain knowledge of the world out there, and I will show you how." The skeptic responds that this is inherently impossible, for all that any of us ever has -or can have -is some per- spective, some interpretation, some particu- lar way of talking about things, without the remotest guarantee being possible even in

principle that what appears to us from that point of view actually coincides with the real truth (whatever, if anything, that expression may now be taken to mean).

Immediately recognizable in this disagree- ment are the terms of a debate reopened some twenty-five to thirty years ago, which has since that time come to dominate discus- sions both in literary theory in particular and also (to borrow a now reasonably familiar phrase) at least on the margins of philosophy. The contemporary version of the skeptical position-whether it be called post-structur- alism, anti-foundationalism, neo-pragmatism, or something else-has seemed to many, especially in recent years, to have the better of the argument. To the extent that this is so, however, it is merely because skeptics today, whatever the differences in detail among them, uniformly direct their fire (as skeptics in all ages have done) exclusively against the position of metaphysical dogmatism. Yet, since the critical revolution in philosophy of the late 1700s, that position has been nothing more than a straw man. It is obviously not defensible, but neither is it something that anyone need worry about defending. For what I have called the stability of signification and the integrity of fact"- that is, our knowledge of objective reality and our ability to communi- cate that knowledge reliably -acquired an en- tirely new foundation as a result of that critical revolution. This third way, however, is some- thing that contemporary skepticism never considers, much less engages. Its proponents remain united in the conviction that there are two -and only two- possible standpoints to be adopted in formulating a theory of knowl- edge: the pre-critical alternatives of dogmatism and skepticism. Rejecting (with good reason) the first of these-the so-called "metaphysics of presenceM-they are thus left with no choice but to adopt the latter. It follws from this way of framing the issue- and this is something that has gone large- ly unnoticed, or at any rate unremarked, throughout the entire debate- that there is an almost literal sense in which, as far as much of what is taking place today at the lead-

ing edge of literary-theoretical discussion is concerned, the decisive philosophical event of the eighteenth century has not happened yet.

The question arises: if the Kantian-Herde- rian critical revolution was such a decisive event in the history of thought, why was it not able-as it manifestly was not- to block the periodic returns to ascendancy that skep- tical outlooks have enjoyed since the end of the eighteenth century? Part of the answer, implicit in what has already been said, is that for all anyone knows, it might well have been -at least in the case of contemporary skep- ticism-if its implications had only been somewhat more widely recognized. The cur- rent wave of skeptical thinking, especially as manifested in the area of literary criticism, takes its start chiefly from Derrida's seminal writings of the mid- to late-1960s. Like vir- tually all thinkers in the French tradition from the seventeenth century onward, Derrida op- erates throughout in an essentially Cartesian, i.e., pre-critical context of thought. That basic cast of mind is reflected in his instinctive adop- tion of rigidly bipolar Saussurean categories of analysis9s well as in his early focus- ing-for purposes of developing his own argu- ment-on probably the most Cartesian of all non-French philosophers: Husserl. The defin- ing move of the deconstructionist program, reduced to its essentials, consists in first positing a structurally Cartesian, dualist for- mulation of the fundamental problems of phi- losophy as the only possible one and then denying that the problems thus formulated can ever be solved. Of course, that result has already been guaranteed in advance by the initial assumption.'

An additional and, I think, still more impor- tant reason for the periodic reemergence of skepticism since the late 1700s has to do with the specific way in which the critical revolution itself was played out at that time. Though both Herder and Kant succeeded in formulat- ing the insight that the objective reality of the world of human experience is a function of that world having been constituted by human beings in the first place, only Herder did so in explicitly linguistic terms. The Kantian ar- gument, though also at bottom a linguistic one (as, indeed, Western philosophy at large has always been grounded in an implicit conviction of the ultimate identity of logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of language), is nonetheless cast overtly in epistemological rather than lin- guistic terms.%ant speaks of structures of mind rather than forms of language as the vehicles by which the phenomenal world is brought into being, and it was his version of the critical argument that was to prove, at least in the short run, by far the more influen- tial one. Operating in the comparatively rare- fied atmosphere of "pure concepts of the understanding" rather than-as did Herder -on the basis of the concrete, lived world of everyday linguistic experience, Kant also left the door to renewed metaphysical specu- lation at least slightly ajar, and it was not long before full advantage was taken of that open- ing. The Kantian "Copernican revolution" thus proved to be only a temporary (due to its internal instability) resolution of the prob- lem of dogmatism and skepticism. In fact, it began to come apart almost immediately in the hands of the post-Kantian Idealists, beginning-ironically enough-with Fichte, whose reputation was founded initially on his championing of the new critical philosophy." The nineteenth century was then to be domi- nated by a succession of dogmatic systems, whose character as dogmatic (in a way, contin- uing the Fichtean precedent) is independent of whether a given thinker happens to see himself -like Hegel- as going beyond Kant or-like Schopenhauer-as restoring him in his full rights. And these systems, in turn, predictably elicit new forms of skeptical re- sponse, the first and in many ways most impor- tant of which being that of Nietzsche.

It should be noted in passing that the clash between dogmatism and skepticism at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth cen- tury leads again, as it had in the eighteenth century, to an effort to resolve the dilemma in critical (that is, Kantian or Herderian) terms. However, for a variety of reasons and from a number of different directions a new, overtly linguistic paradigm is asserting itself with increased force by the Jahrhundertwende. Beginning with Frege and Russell, this is the time of what is now frequently referred to as the "linguistic turn" in philosophy. Thus both the skepticism characteristic of the period and the critical response to it are cast primarily in terms not of abstract forms of thought (with their echoes of what for many had come to seem a somewhat antiquated faculty pyschology) but rather in terms of structures of language. The principal figures here on the skeptical side, in addition to Nietzsche himself, are Mauthner and Mach; on the critical side, it is Wittgenstein. And with that we come nearly to the present day, where the battle between dogmatism and

skepticism is being waged yet again. (Hegel is famous for saying that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.) Even today one already sees evidence of the beginnings of yet another effort to show the pointlessness of that dispute by means of a restatement of the critical position."'

Though the vector shift in philosophical thinking brought about in the eighteenth cen- tury by German critical realism is one of the pivotal events in the history of philosophy (arguably the most important since antiquity), it also has-particularly in its Herderian em- bodiment-at least one noteworthy prede- cessor who, until more than a half century after his death, seems to have been almost entirely unknown, not only in Germany but throughout the rest of Europe as well. He is the Italian jurist and philosopher of history Giambattista Vico." At the heart of Vico's phi- losophy is the doctrine of verum est factum, "the truth is what is made."" Arguing in par- ticular against the Cartesian positing of math- ematics as the paradigm of certainty, which remained a principal foundation of Continental rationalism throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, Vico contends that knowledge of anything is available in pre- eminent fashion to the maker of that thing. And what human beings make, above all, is their own history. As Herder asserts in a fre- quently cited passage from one of the prelimi- nary versions of Vom Erkennen und Empfin- den der menschlichen Seele and as he attempts to demonstrate through the development of a linguistically based epistemology in such works as the Abhandlung iiber den Ursprung der Sprache: "Wir leben immer in einer Welt, die wir uns selbst bilden."'" What this means -for both Vico and for Herder as well as for others in the latter half of the eighteenth cen- tury-is that the world of experience is both a human construct and yet also (however para- doxical it may initially appear) objectively real. The world is not simply what we say it is, if this means that it can literally be transformed by doing nothing more than changing the way we speak of it. The relationship between lan- guage and reality is far more contextually de- termined than that. What is brought into being by the manifold forms of human activity, as reflected principally (though not exclusively) in the language that we employ in carrying out those activities, is really there. It genuinely exists, in the full sense of the word, and no mere modification in ways of talking about things-however ambitious or wideranging-is of itself in any position to change


It is important to emphasize this point, even at the risk of belaboring it, because it is precisely here, it seems to me, that many contemporary skeptics go wrong. It is in fact not entirely uncommon to find adherents of the skeptical view referring to positions like the Viconian and Herderian ones just mentioned as if these were actually anticipatory versions of their own outlook, i.e., that it is never possible to get beyond an expression of what one happens to believe to a definitively correct report of the way things truly are (whatever may be signified by the notion of things being "truly" one way or another). However, this is precisely to miss the key difference between skeptical idealism and crit- ical realism. The locus classicus of that distinc- tion in the eighteenth century is the section of the Kritik der reinen Vkrnunft entitled "Widerlegung des Idealismus" (B 274-79). What Kant shows is that the reality of our experience of ourselves and the real existence of the external world are reciprocal presup- positions of one another and that they there- fore stand ontologically on exactly the same footing: "[Dlas Bewuntsein meines eigenen Daseins ist zugleich ein unmittelbares Be- wuntsein des Daseins anderer Dinge auner mir."I4 Our certainty of the one guarantees our certainty of the other, for it is one and the same constitutive act that brings both into being.I5 Thus we do not in fact inhabit a twilight zone of Berkeleyan hallucinations (according to the principle that esse est percipzl or a realm of Cartesian disembodiment (according to the doctrine that only the mind, and not the ma- terial world, can be known to itself with per- fect certainty). It does not even make sense to suggest that we might. The skeptical ideal- ist position in this respect is not merely mis- taken, it is actually incoherent.

But the skeptic is not necessarily through. Confronted with an argument of the sort that Kant advances, he may still retreat to the position that neither of the two poles in ques- tion is certain: neither the self nor the external world. He may say that each is merely an interpretation, the one as lacking in objective foundation as the other. Here it is useful to recall something of which Wittgenstein repeat- edly reminds us. To predicate something of everything-for example, to term everything (merely) an interpretation-is to have said absolutely nothing because no distinction whatsoever has been made thereby. It is com- parable to suggesting, for example, that all money might be counterfeit. Not only is this false as an empirical matter, it is logically im- possible that this should be the case, for valid currency is whatever serves as a regular medium of exchange, regardless of what it happens to look like.'"nd analogous consid- erations apply to language in general. Words mean what they mean, pick out what they pick out, function as they manifestly do, only as elements within the fabric of human exis- tence at large. Specifically, the notion of "in- terpretation" presupposes for its very sense the existence of a great many things that are not interpretations but simply facts. That these facts are also in their own right ulti- mately human constructs (rather than inde- pendently existing entities) does not under- mine the point but rather confirms it. The concepts of "fact," of "objectivity," and similar notions are themselves integrally bound up with the form of life that has generated the language of which they are a part. Therefore, to suggest that they do not actually have the application to reality that they implicitly pur- port to have, as is tacitly reflected in all the countless ordinary uses of such terms that occur every day, is to be in a kind of existential contradiction with oneself. It is to attempt the impossible gesture of placing oneself outside our language-cum-form of life, while at the same time continuing to employ the only lan- guage that can ever be available to us, by virtue of the fact that our existence (linguistic and otherwise) is itself thoroughly grounded in that form of life.

There is one additional aspect of the differ- ence between dogmatism and skepticism on the one hand and critical realism on the other that needs to be mentioned here. Both the dogmatist and the skeptic have their attention fixed squarely on the issue of "origin." For the one as for the other, the decisive question is whether it is possible to trace our knowl- edge claims back to some point of origination and in that way to find a permanently reliable grounding for them. As noted earlier, they differ only in the answer that they give to that question. The question itself is never called into question in its own right. Critical realists, however, tend to look in the opposite direction altogether from the one with which their pre-critical opponents are preoccupied. This feature of the critical realist outlook is especially prominent in the work of those thin- kers, such as Vico and Herder, whose formu- lation of the "critical turn" includes an ex- pressly historical dimension (and in that re- spect is, I think, one further reason for regret- ting that the Herderian version of that "turn" was not one to carry the day)." An important consequence of this difference in perspective between looking back and looking ahead is that a critical realist like Herder is able to bypass the issue of origin that at once sepa-

rates and unites the dogmatist and the skep- tic, having bracketed it in such a way that there is no longer any relevantly interesting way of even formulating it.

To make this claim specifically with regard to Herder is to encounter at once what may seem an insuperable difficulty in the form of the prominent inclusion of the term "origin" in the title of arguably his most important work, the Abhandlung uber den Ursprung der Sprache. A close examination of the argument of the treatise'Veveals, however, that the difficulty is merely apparent. For what Herder actually demonstrates is that to attempt to determine the origin of language alone- that is, apart from the origin of human beings and the world of human experience-is to be in pursuit of a phantom. The question posed by the Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften: "En supposant les hornrnes abandonnes a leurs facultes naturelles, sont-ils en Ctat d'in- venter le langage?"'y-to which Herder's treatise is nominally addressed-is thus, as he in effect argues, not capable of being answered on its own terms. It is as if one were to ask: "Assuming that someone were nowhere at all, how would that person get from there to somewhere in particular?" The assumption implicit in the Academy's question is that there could at some time have been human beings fully formed in all respects (pos- sessed of all their "natural faculties") but nevertheless not yet capable of language. Like the assumption that a being whose nature it is to exist spatially could be conceived apart from such determination, posing the question in this manner commits one from the outset not merely to an empirical impossibility but to a logical incoherency.

For Herder to resolve the question of the origin of language is accordingly to show that, properly speaking, there is no such thing. It was never the case that human beings and their world stood face to face, each complete in itself and lacking only the bond of language to bring them together. Human beings, lan- guage, and the world are entirely co-original with one another. We are (to fall back faute &mieux on a somewhat overused expression) always already in the midst of our linguistically formed world. And thus it makes no sense to try to look back to (or beyond) some imagined point of origination at which we brought all this into being; for prior to the tripartite struc- ture of self, language, and world, there is not even an "us" (or, for that matter, a world) of which we are able to speak. For Herder as well as for others among his contemporaries, the truly interesting and valuable insights are to be gained less by trying to direct our gaze as far back as possible up the path by which we have come and more by attending to where we are going and how we propose to get there. Indeed, as he suggests in the Ursprung der Sprache itself, it is in this that our distinctively human nature ultimately consist^.'^

Up to this point I have been trying to do two things at once: 1)to present, at least in outline, a new way of viewing the philosophical revolution of the eighteenth century in the context of Western philosophy at large, and 2) on that basis, to argue for a reassessment of a tendency, or a set of tendencies, much in vogue today among literary critics and theo- reticians. My contention is that, far from rep- resenting anything new on the philosophical scene (as is nonetheless often supposed, especially by their proponents), contempo- rary skeptical, relativist, or perspectivist out- looks simply restate in various ways-often with the help of more recently emergent vo- cabularies-arguments that in their essentials were already well known to antiquity against the possibility of reliably grounded knowledge. Of course, not all of those who take the position in question are unaware of that connection. My colleague Stanley Fish, for example, is fully cognizant of it and sees no problem whatever in acknowledging it.L' What he does miss, I believe, is the eight- eenth-century "critical turn." Thus his analy- sis does not reflect the fact that since the latter decades of that century, there have been not merely two players in the game (in his idiom, the "rhet~rical"~~

and the "philosophi-

cal" standpoints) but rather three: as I have termed them, the "dogmatic," the "skeptical," and (the newcomer) the "critical."

From the point of view for which I am argu- ing, it naturally becomes a phenomenon of more than ordinary interest when the contem- porary skeptical perspective is turned, as it has been with increasing frequency in recent years, to developing interpretations of the very historical moment that, if my argument is correct, rendered this perspective obsolete in advance. It seems to me that not even the otherwise most intelligent and articulate of post-structuralist or anti-foundationalist or neo-pragmatist readings of the Goethezeitcan, in the end, avoid this bind. For such readings seek, in effect, to represent as forerunners of contemporary skepticism thinkers and poets, the beginnings of whose careers as philosophically and literarily interesting figures coincide in almost every case precisely with their having made the "critical turn." This means, however, that the objects of these readings have already overcome and so moved beyond the same opposition between dog- matism and skepticism on which the readings themselves nevertheless continue to depend. I would now like to try to bring some of the general conclusions of part 1down to earth by way of a specific illustration of this asser- tion. I will suggest what a reading of a particu- lar text might look like if it were undertaken from the vantage point of my overall perspec- tive on the eighteenth century, while at the same time contrasting it with one produced from what is essentially the standpoint of con- temporary skepticism according to my argu- ment. In order not to appear to be merely shooting fish in a barrel, I wish to set two conditions: 1)I wdl select a text whose place in the canon of centrally important eighteenth- century writings is not in dispute but that nonetheless does not come from an author prominently associated with the "critical turn" itself; 2) I will present the most effective skep- tical reading of this text that I can find, one that cannot be dismissed simply by invoking the usual, obvious considerations (e. g., self- referential inconsistency) that generally suf-

fice for most of contemporary skepticism. It happens that both these conditions can be met satisfactorily by the Parable of the Rings in Lessing's Nathan der Weise. The Ring Par- able has a very large literature devoted to it, including a strongly argued essay by Robert Leventhal." My reading of the Parable, how- ever, departs significantly from the one that Leventhal presents. I would like to use that contrast in our views in order to 1)draw out in somewhat greater detail a number of what I take to be the principal differences between skepticism and critical realism, and 2) argue that Lessing in fact stood with the leading figures among his contemporaries in adopting, if not the full-blown version of the latter posi- tion, nevertheless at least several key aspects of it.

To begin with points of general agreement, I think Leventhal is entirely correct in assert- ing that by means of a version of the "rhetor- ical device of circumlocution" Lessing aims to create with the Ring Parable an "interpretive area in which the receptive reader is trans- formed into a critical, productive reader" (504). The dilemma with which Nathan finds himself confronted by Saladin's question is es- sentially-as Leventhal also notes-the Herderian problem of the One and the Many: l' how to reconcile the competing demands of particular national cultures and their claims to autonomy with the overall development of the human race toward the ideal of Humanitat. Also like Herder, Lessing recognizes that the only strategy likely to be effective in dealing with this problem is a rhetorical one in which a convergence of theoretical insight and prac- tical effect is somehow achieved. However, I think it misses the key aspect of the Ring Parable's rhetorical character to describe it as simply "a diversionary tactic . . . directing the focus away from the question of the one 'true' belief or religion and redirecting focus toward the question of the basis for any belief whatsoever" (507-08). The intent of the Par- able, in my view, is rather to reanalyze altogether the notion of true belief- and thus also of the object of that belief-in a direction broadly analogous to the "critical turn," a di- rection that I would like to call the "pragmatici- zation of the doctrinal."

Leventhal notes that the Parable opens in an indeterminately distant past -"Vor grauen Jahren . . ." (111. ~ii.395)'~- which he charac- terizes as "an origin without origin" (508). He reminds us of Stuart Atkins's ob~ervation'~ that "the Ring itself has neither a natural nor a supernatural origin." And he continues:

The Parable begins with an origin be- tween myth and history, which is to say, with no origin at all. Rather, the Parable plays with the very idea of origin . . . . The indeterminacy of the origin . . . is simultaneously the origin of the indeter- minacy of the "true" religion, the "true" belief, because without a distinct notion of origin, no justification is possible. (509)

Until the very last, I think this is basically unexceptionable. It is the final clause that seems not to follow, and I believe it is an essential part of Lessing's intention to use the Parable to bring that pivotally important point home to his audience.

Leventhal maintains -rightly, I believe that Lessing rejected both religious orthodoxy and Enlightenment deism on the grounds that "both relied on a notion of 'origin'" (Scripture and human reason, respectively). And it is also true, as he has just observed, that "the reader does not know the 'foundation' or 'ori- gin' of the ring, its precise arche." I disagree, however, that the reader is slrmlarly in the dark with regard to what he terms the ring's "telos." For surely this is precisely what we do learn about the ring from Nathan's descrip- tion of it: "Der Stein war ein / Opal, der hun- dert schone Farben spielte, 1 Und hatte die geheime Kraft, vor Gott / Und Menschen ange- nehm zu machen, wer 1 In dieser Zuversicht ihn trug" (III.vii.397-401; emphasis added). Moreover, I think that it is not quite correct to speak of "the magical power of the ring [as] based on trust, faith, reliance on the ring's power" (509). For Zuversicht in this context is not equivalent simply to faith; that is, it does not denote merely a mental attitude. Rather, it refers in the first instance to a par- ticular way of acting (the full context of the passage speaks of the individual who "in die- ser Zuversicht ihn [the ring] trug"). And that distinction corresponds in turn to the differ- ence between both orthodoxy and deism on the one hand-both of which rest finally on faith-and what I take to be Lessing's concep- tion of right religion on the other- based in- stead on what we decide to do.

This is also the ancient distinction (drawn by Aristotle, for example) between dialectic, or syllogistic, on the one hand, and rhetoric on the other- the difference between (mere- ly) producing conviction and moving to action. And it is the latter rather than the former on which the "magical" power of the ring ulti- mately depends. The ring's achievement of its effect is thus the result of a kind of self- validating claim, and to that extent there is naturally a degree of circularity involved. This is not, however, the logically vicious circle of begging the question or assuming the point in argumentation. It is rather a concretely realized existential-hermeneutical circle in which the end (the telos) of action-acting in such a way as to make oneself "pleasing before God and men" -validates what was the initial impetus to that action, namely, the Zuversicht with which one decided to wear the ring in the first place. And thus I think a false alter- native is created when one says that "it is not the substance or materiality of the ring itself, not the physical existence of the ring as abso- lute basis, as Grund, but the power endowed through faith and belief that determines the actual power of the ring" (509). It seems to me that this way of expressing the matter in effect presupposes that the range of possible explanations is exhausted by the choice be- tween the standpoints of dogmatism and skep- ticism, in the sense of those terms discussed earlier. I believe it was a concern for Lessing as well as for others among his contempo- raries to find a third way -the one I here call "critical realismv- that avoids altogether the necessity of opting either for the view that thgs exist in advance of our constitution of them or for the position that knowledge claims are merely interpretations without any possi- ble claim to objective foundation; this third way does so in large part by looking forward to results rather than back to origins.

Thus I think it is also a misinterpretation of the moral of the Ring Parable to say that for Lessing there is henceforth to be "no final- ity to the interpretive process." As I read it, with respect to the issue that gave rise to the Parable, its conclusion is that there is no longer any cogently formulable process of in- terpretation in which one might even engage. The need for interpretation has been replaced by a continuing project of historically situated constitutive activity (to which there is indeed no end, at least not within human history). For the same reason, I think it misses the mark to say that "the Parable achieves only formal closure; the actual judgment or ulti- mate sense is deferred" (511); for, again, by the end of the Parable there is nothg in this regard that still needs to be determined. We know all the "ultimate sense" we will ever know, and it is now for Lessing-as in our century for Wittgenstein, for example -simply a question of acting or not acting. Either one behaves in humane fashion or one does not. But what has now been ruled out com- pletely is any possibility of talking (much less disagreeing) about this, since no conceivable purpose would be served." To be sure, Le- venthal does at one point speak of "the power of the stone" as somethmg that the judge's decision compels us in the end to recognize as being "fully dependent on human action" (516). Apart from this (and one other passage to be noted below), however, his argument throughout moves within the pre-critical framework of an opposition between "'origi- nal' text or intention" on the one hand and "manifold readings, various discourses under different framing conditions" on the other- or, as he also puts it, between "the hegemony of the one true and for all times 'valid' interpre- tation" and "a multiplicity of [different] in- terpretations" (513). In his view, Lessing's nod goes in each case to the latter.'"

Although there would be little point in enumerating all the passages in which Le- venthal's discussion of the Parable appears to take as given for Lessing precisely the dog-

matic-skeptical antinomy that he is concerned above all to overcome, the characterization of him as having "posed the question of the con- stitution of an interpretive culture that has given up the belief in the canon and the one interpretive apparatus assigned to it" and thus as having "indicated what reading might look like after we dispense with the idea of auto- cratic interpretation" (517) does seem to me to call for further comment. Leventhal refers explicitly in this connection to the neo-prag- matism of Richard Rorty, and although he does not actually say so in these exact words, I think nevertheless he might surely be taken to imply that he regards Lessing as essentially in agreement with Rorty's ideal of a "post-philo- sophical culture" (526, n. 38)." For my own part, I am inclined to think that Lessing would have been troubled (at the very least) by this suggestion, and with good reason. Despite his talk of limitless freedom of interpreta- tion-or rather as the inevitable consequence of the very argument intended to establish that conclusion- what Rorty in effect advo- cates is precisely the sort of tyranny of the (local) majority that Lessing faced in connec- tion with the Fragmentenstreit and that in turn-if his testimony is anythg to go by- played a key role in the writing of Nathan der Weise itself."" What Rorty variously terms his "conversationalist'' or "epistemologically be- haviorist" criterion of truth, i.e., that the truth is simply "what our peers dl, ceterisparibus, let us get away with ~aying,"~' must appear chilling indeed to anyone unfortunate enough to find himself in disagreement with whatever happens to be the currently prevailing or- thodoxy in his particular field of activity.32

From everything I have said thus far it dl be obvious that I agree with Leventhal that "the Parable does allow for a certain author- ity." It seems to me, however, that this is something other than merely "the internal coherence of individual religions or cultural tra- ditions" (518).j"athan's explanation to Sala- din of why he continues to profess Judaism (and, by implication, why Saladin remains a Muslim) does not refer primarily to the substance of belief- that is, not to positive doc- trine under any construction of that notion, whether apodictic or merely interpretive. Rather, what Nathan emphasizes are forms of human action. The decisive factor is how one has been treated all one's lie, and by whom:

Saladin: Ich dkhte, I Dalj die Religionen, die ich dir I Genannt, doch wohl zu unter- scheiden waren. / Bis auf Kleidung; bis auf Speis und Trank!

Nathan: Und nur von Seiten ihrer Griin- de nicht. -/ Denn griinden alle sich nicht auf Geschichte? / Geschrieben oder iiberliefert!-Und I Geschichte murj doch wohl allein auf Treu / Und Glauben angenommen werden?-Nicht? -I Nun wessen Treu und Glauben zieht man dem / Am wenigsten in Zweifel? Doch der Seinen? / Doch deren Blut wir sind? doch deren, die / Von Kindheit an uns Proben ihrer Liebe / Gegeben? die uns nie getauscht, als wo / Get2uscht zu wer- den uns heilsamer war? -(III.vii.45468)

The principal "authority" that I see established by the Parable is precisely this criterion of humane action, grounded at once in our most basic (and, of crucial importance, universal) ethical intuitions and, as we shall see below, in the very nature of human rationality as well.

The issue of interpretation has thus been rendered entirely beside the point, and so to suggest that Lessing now accords "priority" to "interpretive application in an ongoing, in- finite creation of significance" (518) overlooks, I believe, the goal on which he really focuses with the Parable. The question of what one professes to believe-what one says-has now given way to a newly central concern with what one does. As I read hlrn here, Les- sing is not interested, in the first instance at any rate, merely in the "creation of sigmfi- cance." His overriding concern is rather with the concrete problem of how to create and sustain a truly human community." Realiza- tion of such a community, however, presup- poses above all both individual autonomy and respect for the autonomy of others. What Les- sing gives us in the Ring Parable is thus in the end a kind of rhetorical counterpart of Kant's transcendental deduction of the cate- gorical imperative in the Grundlegungzur Me- taphysik der Sitten, with its corollary that we are to treat other people always as ends and never only as means. In this sense it is possi- ble to agree with Leventhal that "the parable in Nathan functions as a 'performative,' not as a 'description' or 'report,"' and yet one can still disagree as to what is actually "per- formed" here. Leventhal maintains: "As a 'per- formative,' the parable does not rqbresent or prescribe a certain system of values to be fol- lowed, but rather calls upon the reader to confront the multiplicity and indeterminacy of historical meaning, and to create values con- sistent with that multiplicity and indetermi- nacy through action" (519). In my view the Parable does not "call upon" the reader to do anything. Rather, it constructs a reality that the reader (or, properly speaking, member of the audience"), precisely in the process by which he or she apprehends it, cannot help at the same time acknowledging as his or her

own as well.

The implicitly hypothetical structure of the Parable requires- not just for the completion of its meaning but in order that any part of that meaning be realized at all-that we in the audience locate ourselves within the framework of the conditional it defines: if P then Q, but P, therefore Q, where P refers to the correct understanding of the problem of determining the "true" religion (i.e., that it is not a matter of doctrine, and therefore not a problem at all, at least not in the sense of "problem" implicit in Saladin's initial posing of the question), and Q refers to the necessity thereby entailed of demonstrating this under- standing through our actions. In other words, the Parable is structured in such a way that we ineluctably find ourselves simultaneously in the position of the judge and the sons, which is to say that for us comprehension and (moral) activity are henceforth one. Insofar as we are capable of conscious reflection at all-and if we were not, we would lack even the capacity to make sense of and thus to assdate the "argument" of the Parable in the first place, which, by hypothesis, is what we have done- the exercise of that rational faculty is now identified with the humane values that are the telos of both the ring and its Parable.""

Thus it is not that the audience is per- suaded by the Parable of its own autonomy and of the autonomy of humanity at large. It is precisely in grasping the Parable that we experience this autonomy (and the values it implies) as our own telos, as that which it still remains for us to bring fully into being in order to realize ourselves-in association with others-as genuinely human. The Parable's "construction" of a reality for us is therefore not the creation of something entirely new. It is not as if something that did not exist previously in any form had now been added to our world (and still less as if the latter had simply been replaced outright by that some- thing). What has occurred is rather an effect akin to a gestalt shift." We find ourselves recognizing, and so able to act upon, what was in a certain sense already there, right in front of us the whole time, but in a potential rather than in an actual mode of being. Thus in the end we see the deep identity established by Lessing between the teaching of the Para- ble and the ancient insight that indeed the truth must set us free, if we are ever to have any hope of being so. This does not mean that we ever get outside the existential-her- meneutical circle. For the very principle of verum est factum, that the truth is what is made, with the convergence of theory and practice that it entails, necessarily extends as well to this principle itself and so also to the vahdity of the particular sort of human future envisaged as flowing from it.

From this point of view it does become diffi- cult to see "the implicit teachmg of the Para- ble" as urging us in the direction of a "continual confrontation with tradition and texts in an interpretive process of reception and trans- f~rmation."~~

We do not interpret at all any- more; we act. The question of the "true" re- ligion no longer even makes sense after the Ring Parable any more than the question of whether you and I "really" see the same color that we both call blue makes sense after Witt- genstein's analysis of the grammar of inner states.39 In other words, if there is indeed (as I obviously think there is) "the implicit teach- ing of the Parable," it cannot also be the case that "there are many possible interpretations, each with a certain validity and internal truth." That was precisely the condition of aporia from which the Parable took its start and which it has been chiefly concerned to over- come throughout. However, the key to doing so consists in recognizing that what is truly decisive is-as Leventhal himself says (though I am not sure how consistently with the rest of his argument)- "the moral deeds which spring forth from [the concrete application of our views]." For as he also indicates, this is not something to be found "in the ab- stract realm of ideas, thought, and represen- tation" (521). And that, in turn, would appear to be tantamount to saying: not in the realm of mere interpretation.

As already suggested above, it is Wittgen- stein in particular who provides the counter to this assumption of the centrality of interpre- tation. I believe that Charles Altieri, in his discussion of Wittgenstein and Derrida cited earlier, has it exactly right in this regard as well:

For Wittgenstein, the sense of the given as commonly held forms of behavior greatly limits the sphere in whch the problematics of interpretation apply. . . . It makes sense to talk about problematic situations; it makes no sense to general- ize these situations as the basic reality for those cursed by consciousness and language. . . . [Ilnterpretations are problematic precisely because they are called for only when our normal proce- dures break down. Thus they cannot be applied to ordinary cases. On the con- trary, they depend on a contrast with ordinary experience in order for us to recognize them for what they are."'

He continues: "The problem of interpretation, then, has important similarities with the prob- lem of doubt, a problem which Wittgenstein in On Certainty takes great pains to clarify because it is when this concept is misused that the sceptic gets his hold."" More recently John Ellis, in the context of his discussion of the "weakness [of deconstruction] as a pre- scription for critical procedure," has observed that

aside from the fact that this program [of merely "debunking the old" rather than "finding the new"] is inherently unin- teresting, it is, in fact, not at aU clear that it is possible; for as Charles Sanders Peirce argued against Descartes' recom- mendation that we should doubt all that we know, doubt can only really arise from specific causes and anxieties, not from the contemplation of the present state of knowledge taken only by itself.4L

The assumption that interpretation is the principal human cognitive activity (indeed, in some extreme versions of the doctrine, the principal human activity of any sort) forms the centerpiece of contemporary skeptical out- looks to such an extent that it tends to be invoked even in contexts in which, by the very terms of the argument being developed, it is manifestly out of place. Ths is even more strikingly apparent in the case of the second of Lessing's parables to which Leventhal refers."" The story tells of a palace so fantastically complex in its design- both in extent and in the apparently limitless variety of the indi- vidual sections-that experts have been seekmg in vain to achieve a comprehensive grasp of it by determining the definitive text of its original plans. One night the fire alarm is sounded. Leventhal describes what hap- pens next:

When the watchman screamed "fire," the experts reached for their particular ver- sion of the "original plans" and argued about the exact location of the blaze. Only those who dispensed with the very idea of a correct representation or original plan could save the palace. The experts failed to comprehend the task at hand; their obsession with the "authentic" text and the "correct" plans was, and is, dangerously out of touch with the neces- sity of interpretive intervention. (522)

But it is not "the necessity of interpretive intervention" that saves the palace (or, strictly speaking, would have saved it had this actually been necessary; for it turns out that the orig- inal report of fire was errone~us~~);

it is the necessity to stop interpreting and start acting when confronted with objective reality. Nor is the (actual) presence of fire determined in the first place by "interpretation"; it is deter- mined by such things as observing that a build- ing is burning down. This sort of recognition is no more an interpretation than is burning one's hand on a hot stove or getting wet in the rain, and the fact that contemporary skep- ticism is unable to make the distinction be- tween fact and interpretation required here strikes me as one of its most conspicuous weaknesses.

Someone may object that Lessing's text makes precisely the opposite point. For was it not after all the watchmen's (mis)interpreta- tion of what they saw that led to the sounding of the fire alarm? And would it not therefore also have been an interpretation (correct this time) of the relcvant clues had there really been a fire? The objection, however, confuses two different entities: indications from which we may or may not conclude the presence of something, and that thing itself. With respect to the former, it is obviously possible to draw incorrect as well as correct conclusions and, in that sense, to interpret either erroneously or in accordance with the facts. However, we have seen that in order for the notion of in- terpretation to be in place at all, there must fist be some doubt or uncertainty as to the actual state of affairs. This condition is met by the watchmen's initial sighting of only a light that, in the absence of additional indica- tions, admits of more than one explanation. What the watchmen do- perhaps wishing on grounds of prudence to err on the side of cau- tion-is to jump to a conclusion that turns out not to be supported by subsequent data. It is quite another matter, however, when all the data speak only for the presence of fire, as in the case when the light that one sees proves on closer examination to be produced by flames, when one observes that tremendous amounts of heat are being given off and great volumes of smoke are generated, and when one sees combustible objects being consumed. At this point there is no longer any- thmg to interpret. We are incontrovertibly in the presence of fire, for this is what "fire" means-i. e., the way we use the term- in our language. Again, it does not follow from this that the phenomenon of fie is simply given in advance, prior to and independently of our particular Weltbild. To draw that conclu- sion would be to commit the opposite error from the conflation of critical realism and skep- tical idealism discussed above. It would be to confuse critical realism with metaphysical dogmatism. Fire is what it is in our world- and this is actually almost tautological-only in consequence of our particular linguistic- epistemological determination of that world. But the same is true of the concepts of "inter- pretation," of "fact" and, indeed, of everything else that can form part of our experience. There is simply no logically coherent stand- point from which it is possible to be in doubt about everything and, thus, none from which it can make sense to speak of all our determi- nations of fact as being (merely) interpreta- tions.

Confronted with a building going up in flames, it seems at best somewhat beside the point to speak of "the necessity of each indi- vidual to assume the responsibility for an in- terpretation and to act accordingly . . . a re- sponsibility [that] entails becoming our own interpreters and applying our interpretations in a way consistent with the multiplicity of historical tradition, that is, . . . without recourse to an absolute truth" (523). In the (surely somewhat implausible) event that an "interpretation" were to be adduced under which a burning building was not really burning (but merely seemed to be) or under which neither third-degree burns nor the pain as- sociated with them were really burns or really painful (but merely someone's necessarily perspectival, and so inherently corrigible, be- liefl, we would feel not the slightest obligation to consider it seriously but would- with per- fect right- dismiss it out of hand. The world is not simply a particular way of talking about things; and, as Lessing seems to recognize clearly, some thmgs-such as preventing people from burning to death-are of such immediate urgency that we are indeed morally obliged to stop talking and to do somethmg about the situation. Wittgenstein is famous

for asserting in the preface to the Tractatus

the twofold principle: "Was sich iiberhaupt sa-

gen lafit, lafit sich klar sagen; und wovon man

nicht reden kann, dariiber mul3 man schwei-

gen."" It is hard to imagine Lessing disagree-

ing, either with the position itself or with the

fundamentally ethical impulse that led to its



' Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure ofscientific Revolutions (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962) 172. Kuhn 172.

' See The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I: 59-60.

' Like all such schematisms, this one presents-for the sake of what I hope is its heuristic value-clearly a much less differentiated picture than does the actual historical record. It is not uncommon, for example, to find in the work of a given thmker a strongly skeptical position with respect to one set of issues coexisting with a stance of unabashed dogmatism vis-a-vis another set. This is especially true in the case of those devoutly religious th~nkers whose overriding purpose in de- monstrating the vanity of the claims of reason is to establish faith as the only possible foundation of secure knowledge. Pascal, in his Pensies, provides what is probably the best known example, but the same is true of such less generally familiar figures as Pedro Valencia, Gentian Hervet, and Francisco Sanches. Other philoso- phers, such as Gassendi and Mersenne, develop a mod- ified (or, as it is aslo called, "constructive") skepticism. In their view, while the arguments of the skeptic remain incontrovertible insofar as actual knowledge of the ulti- mate nature of reality itself is concerned (the pursuit of which must, accordingly, continue to be regarded as a chimerical undertaking), there is nevertheless noth- ing in these arguments to prevent us from developing a science-admittedly only probabilistic and hypothet- ical-of phenomenal appearances. This will take the form of describing observed regularities among phenomena simply as we happen to perceive them, without prejudice as to what the things thus perceived may be like "in themselves," and on that basis, then, of formulating what will presumably be increasingly accurate predictions of future events. Still other philosophers include in their works a rehearsal of vari- ous standard arguments for skepticism, either as part of a general consideration of possible positions that one might adopt on basic philosophical questions or as indicative of a standpoint that, while corresponding in some measure to their own views, is also qualified in important respects by other aspects of their thought. Cicero's De Academica (whose arguments are in turn attacked by Augustine in his Contra Academicos) is an example of this tendency. Finally, it can happen that the arguments employed by a given philosopher gain for him, against his own express wishes, the reputation of being a skeptic. Such was the case, for example, with the version of phenomenalist idealism propounded by Berkeley. Useful overviews of many of the issues involved here, as well as extensive bibliographical refer- ences, are to be found in the articles on "Skepticism" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, VII: 449-61; and "Skepticism in Antiquity" and "Skepticism in Modern Thought" in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, IV: 234-51. In the introduction to Michael Morton, Herder and the Poetics of Thought (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989) 5.

"John Ellis has recently argued forcefully that Derrida in fact mistakes what in Saussure is actually a tripartite schema (of "signifier, sigrufied, [and] referent") for a bipolar one. See Against Deconstruction (Princeton: UP, 1989) 58-59. As Charles Altieri observes: "Once words and things are seen as constituting separate, self-enclosed realms, one can only avoid scepticism by positing some meta- physical entity or 'origin,' an absolute mind, a synthetic apriori, logical simples, or an idea of forms or essences -to explain how the two come together. [There is an obvious parallel here to Descartes's formulation of the mind-body problem and his notorious inability there- after to resolve the problem subsequent to its concep- tion in that manner.] Derrida sees the problem and (especially in his work on Husserl) makes the rejection of essences the cornerstone of his scepticism. But . . . the scepticism is only the reverse demonic side of essentialist thinking . . ." ("Wittgenstein on Conscious- ness and Language: A Challenge to Derridean Literary Theory," MLN 91 [1976]: 1409).

"Hazard Adams, in his introduction to the collection Critical Theory Since 1965 (Tallahassee: UP of Florida, 1986) speaks of "the thought of Kant" as "seem[ing] to us today to cry out for transference of the notion of the constitutive from the mind to language" (4). The recognition that this "transference" was in fact ac- complished by Herder-and that it was accomplished, moreover, at least ten to fifteen years before the appear- ance of the first edition of the Kritik der reinen Ver- nunft-is today still only beginning to make itself felt among Germanisten and much less on the part of schol- ars in other fields. It is an all too farmliar experience, for example, to note that while Adams's earlier collec- tion, Critical Theory Since Pluto (San Diego: Har- court, 19711, does include selections from such pivotal eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century German phi- losophers and critics as Lessing, Kant, Goethe, Schil- ler, Schelling, and Hegel-as it should-Herder is nevertheless nowhere to be found, neither in the table of contents nor even in the index. See, for example, Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History ofPhilosophy,vol. 7: Modern Philosophy, part 1: "Fichte to Hegel" (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 51.

'I' Among the most promising moves in this direction of which I am aware is the "internal realism" of Hilary Putnam, which in many respects closely resembles the Herderian version of what I am here calling "critical realism," recast in the idiom of contemporary analytic philosophy. See, in particular, Reason, Truth, and His- tory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981). As Putnam has also indicated more recently, however, the develop- ment of "internal realism" still has some way to go. See Representation and Reality (Cambridge: MIT P, 1988), where he refers to his "ongoing project of de- veloping a third way ('internal realism') between classi- cal realism and antirealism" (107). The poles between which Putnam is trying to negotiate a path correspond in his terminology-so far as I can tell, exactly- to what I am here calling "dogmatism" and "skepticism." Other thinkers who seem to me in various ways to be making important contributions in this same general direction include Davidson, Apel, and ~abermis. On the other hand, Richard Bernstein's Beyond Obiectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis

(Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983), its title not- withstanding, strikes me as still basically bound to the skeptical side of the pre-critical dichotomy.

" Perhaps it is better to say: Neapolitan jurist and philosopher of history, inasmuch as at this time the name "Italy," lie "Germany," does not yet designate a nation in the modern sense of a nation-state but points instead to the absence of one. At the Congress of Vienna, Metternich based his opposition to Italian un- ification on the contention that Italy was not a political entity but only a geographical one. The fact that Met- ternich obviously had political ends of his own in view when he made that assertion does not alter the fragmentation into a multitude of kingdoms, duchies, bishoprics, and other principalities, large and small, that was the salient feature of the Italian (and German) map at this time. It seems not entirely coincidental that these similar political situations with respect to national identity should have given rise, as they did, at once to philosophies of history and to theories of knowl- edge that are sirmlar also in important respects, such as their common tendency to construe each of these branches of philosophy to a large extent in terms of the other.

" "Verum et factum convertuntur" (first stated in De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia ex Linguae Latinae Originibus Eruenda of 1710); also from De Antiquis- sima: "Veri criterium est ipse fecisse," and "Demon- stratio eadem ac operatio fit, et verum idem ac fac- turn." The passages are cited by Isaiah Berlin in "The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico" in his Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (New York: Vintage, 1977) 15 and 17 (see also p. 6,

n. 2).

" Herder, Samtliche Werke (hereafter SWS), ed. Bern- hard Suphan (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1877-19131, VIII: 252. Cf. Kant, in 8 68 of the Kritik der Urteilskraft: ". . . denn nur soviel sieht man voll- stiindig ein, als man nach Begriffen selbst machen und zustande bringen ka~"

(Hamburg: Meiner, 1974) 248. 'Want, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, ed. Raymund Schrmdt, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: Meiner, 1930) 274 (B 276).

'""Der Idealismus] nahm an, dalj die einzige unmittelba- re Erfahrung die innere sei, und daraus auf aukre Dinge nur geschlossen werde, aber, wie allemal, wenn man aus gegebenen Wirkungen auf bestimmte Ursa- chen schlieot, nur unzuverlassig, weil auchin uns selbst die Ursache der Vorstellungen liegen kann, die wir Buljeren Dingen, vielleicht fiisc~ich, zuschreiben. Allein hier wird bewiesen, daR aukre Erfahrune eieent- lich unmittelbar sei, dalj nur verrnittelst ihrer, ;war nicht das Bewuljtsein unserer eigenen Existenz, aber doch die Bestimmung derselben in der Zeit, d.i. innere Erfahrung, moglich sei. . . . folglich innere Erfahrung selbst nur mittelbar und nur durch aukre moglich ist"

(Schmidt, [ed.], Kritik 274-75 [B 276.771).

I" This obviously does not mean that there is no such thing as counterfeit money nor that counterfeit money can be transformed into vahd currency by nothmg more than a unilateral decision to treat it as such. As a sig- nificant portion of the Kn'tik der reinen Vernunft is devoted to showing, the point is that confusion arises when one takes a concept with a well understood and valid application within a certain realm of discourse and tries to extend the range of the concept's applicability to include the totality of that realm. Josef Simon maintains: "Die philosophische Bedeutung Herders liegt ohne Zweifel darin, da8 er die Geschichte in den Mittelpunkt des Philosophierens geriickt hat" ("Herder und Kant: Sprache und 'historischer Sinn,"' Johann Gottfried Herder 1744-1803,ed. Gerhard Sauder [Hamburg: Meiner, 19871 3). And whiie one may per- haps quibble that this estimate of Herder's importance is somewhat unfair to Vico and that it also slights the extraordinary range of Herder's own interests and ac- complishments in other areas, there is surely nothing with which to disagree in the basic recognition of Her- der's pioneering role as a historical thinker.

'"See, for example, Michael Morton, "Herder and the Possibility of Literature: Rationalism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Germany," Johann Gottfried Her- der: Innovator Through the Ages, ed. Wulf Koepke (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982), 41-63.

Iq Cited by Hans Dietrich Irmscher in the Nachwort to his edition of the Abhandlung iiber den Ursprung der Sprache (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1966) 137.

"' "Der Kunstgriff ist [des Menschen] Seele wesentlich, nichts fiir diesen Augenblick zu lernen, sondern alles, entweder an das zu reihen, was sie schon wuBte, oder fiir das, was sie kiinftig daran zu kniipfen gedenkt: sie berechnet also ihren Vorrat, den sie gesammelt, oder noch zu sammeln gedenkt: und so wird sie eine Kraft unverriickt zu sammeln. Solch eine Kette geht bis an den Tod fort: gleichsam nie der ganze Mensch: immer in Entwicklung, im Fortgange, in Vervollkomm- nung. . . . Wir wachsen immer aus einer Kindheit, so alt wir sein mogen, sind immer im Gange, unruhig, ungesattigt: das Wesentliche unsres Lebens ist nie Ge- nuB, sondern immer Progression, und wir sind nie Men- schen gewesen, bis wir-zu Ende gelebt haben . . ." (SWS, V: 98). As is customary in contemporary cita- tions from the Suphan-Ausgabe, I have moderized Herder's spelling at a few points in this passage.

" See, for example, the essay "Rhetoric" in Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke UP, 1989) 471-502.

" Fish's use of the term "rhetorical"-like that of many critics in recent years, beginning perhaps with de Man-generally corresponds to my usage of "skepti- cal.'' For reasons that will become apparent in what follows, I want to reserve "rhetorical" here for a particu- lar way of formulating the critical realist position.

"' Robert S. Leventhal, "The Parable as Performance: Interpretation, Cultural Transmission and Political Strategy in Lessing's Nathan der Weise," German Quarterly 61.4 (1988): 502-27. References to this es- say are cited by page number in the body of the text.

LTor a (brief) discussion of the central role played by this perennial philosophical problem in the development of Herder's thought at large, see the introduction to Herder and the Poetics of Thought (16-24; see n. 5).


References to Nathan der Weise are by act, scene, and verse number of the text in Lessing's Samtliche Schrif- ten (hereafter LM), ed. Karl Lachmann and Franz Muncker, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Goschen, 1887), 111: 1-

177. References to other works by Lessing are by vol- ume and page number of this edition.


In Stuart Atkins, "The Parable of the hgs in Lessing's Nathan," Germanic Review 26 (1951): 259-67.

" In other words, it is not that the "anagogical" level of the Parable, its "ultimate mystical sense," is "placed under erasure" (511). It is rather that the Parable's reanalysis of the issue with which it is concerned has led to the dissolution of the problem of giving a discur- sive account of "ultimate sense" under any description.

'The basic difference in our understandings of this par- ticular text notwithstanding, I think it is also worth noting that Leventhal and I are evidently in agreement at least to the extent of acknowledging what we both see as the essential contemporaneity of Lessing's thought. For both of us (albeit for different reasons) Lessing's ideas are no less able to command the serious attention of readers today than they were in the case of his eighteenth-century audience. And I take that common assessment to be grounded in a recognition on both our parts of the extent to which the intellectual environment of the late twentieth century continues to be defied by many of the same questions that en- gaged the efforts of Lessing and his contemporaries. In this respect, both Leventhal and I appear to differ with the view of Lessing's relationship to the present offered by David Wellbery, for example. Spealung of the Laokoon and not of the Ring Parable (about which he would possibly have somethmg different to say), Wellbery is at some pains, as he puts it, to "emphasize that . . . I am not arguing for its essential truth or contemporaneity. On the contrary, what I am principally after is the otherness of Lessing's great work in aes- thetic criticism, its position outside our own order of words and things" (Lessing's Laocoon: Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age ofReason [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 19841 4). The implicit reference to Foucault is, of course, not inadvertent. As Wellbery has already indi- cated two pages earlier, and as is clear from other passages in his study as well, he is largely indebted for his periodization to Foucault's The Order of Things. Readers less persuaded by Foucault's argument will have correspondingly less reason to locate Lessing on the other side of a semiotic great divide separating him and his time from the present day.

"The reference is to a passage from Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982), the full text of which runs as follows: "The question of whether the pragmatist view of truth- that it is not a profitable topic- is itself true is thus a question about whether a post-Philosophi- cal culture is a good thing to try for" (xliii). " Something of which Leventhal reminds us, citing among other things Lessing's well known letters to Elise Reimarus (91611778) and his brother Karl (111711778) (see 504-05 and 525, nn. 14 and 15). Lessing's refer- ence in the first of these letters to his desire to employ

the "Theater" as a "Kanzel" with Nathan (LM, XVIII: 287) calls to mind similar allusions in connection with other writers of the time. Gert Ueding notes that Adam Mdler characterized Schiller as "[dler groljte Redner der deutschen Nation, . . . der die dichterische Form nur wahlte, weil er gehort werden wollte, und weil die Poesie eine Art von Publiium in Deutschland hatte, die Beredsamkeit aber keines . . ." (cited in Schillers Rhetorik: Idealistische Wirkungsiisthetik und rhetorische Tradition [Tubingen: Niemeyer, 19711 4). Herman Meyer mentions a remark of Goethe's in Dichtung und Wahrheit, in which Goethe refers to a corresponding conjunction of the poetic and the rhetorical in his own case but draws quite the opposite moral from it: "Er berichtet iiber seine friihe Erzahlergabe, die einen Be- kannten zu der Bemerkung veranlaljt habe, er 'sei ei- gentlich zum Volksredner geboren. Uber diese Eroff- nung erschrak ich nicht wenig: denn hatte sie wirklich Grund, so ware, da sich bei meiner Nation nichts zu reden fand, alles ubrige, was ich vornehmen konnte, leider ein verfehlter Beruf gewesen"' (Eufihorion 53 [1959]: 323). The interest in the rhetorical dimension of poetic and philosophical discourse in eighteenth-cen- tury Germany shown by scholars in recent years is increasingly accompanied by a recognition that the phenomenon with which we are dealing here is not that of a reanimation of antique notions of persuasive speech, with their common presupposition of the al- ready extant political commonwealth (the fiolis or res publica) as the enabling context of such discourse. Rather, the overriding concern of the German writers in question is to bring about the individual and collective conditions under which, in the present day, such a national-cultural entity might be realized at all.

" Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979) 176. See also, for example, Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism (see n. 29): ". . . pragmatism . . . is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones -no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow- inquirers" (165).

" On the other hand, if it were to turn out that there is no alternative to adopting this criterion, then the tacti- cal conclusion to be drawn from it would presumably be obvious: find the right "peers." Having once sur- rounded oneself with (and, to the extent possible, even limited oneself to speaking to) those with whom one is already in agreement on all fundamental points, it would appear to follow, according to Rorty's view, that in a literal sense one could no longer go wrong. Although at first he was perhaps not entirely comfortable with this (pragmatically) sectarian consequence of his position, in his more recent work Rorty has actually come to embrace it. See, for example, "On Ethnocen- trism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz," Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 525-34. Moreover, on several occa- sions he has been even more candid regarding another -and still less welcome-consequence of his theory, namely, that it renders impossible any principled de- fense against moral evil. In the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism (see n. 29) he notes that "seeing all criteria as no more than temporary resting places, constructed by a community to facilitate its inquiries, seems morally humiliating . . . [for it] means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form 'There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.' This thought is hard to live with . . ." (xlii; see also 158 and 172-74). For a recent reaffirmation of this view on his part, see Richard Rorty, "Truth and Free- dom: A Reply to Thomas McCarthy," Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 633-43. Especially in light of the history of this century, however, I think it is surely safe to say that any philosophical position that entails such a con- clusion is not merely "morally humiliating" or "hard to live with"; it is morally bankrupt precisely because-at least for its victims (and one would hope that for this reason others would find it so as well)-it is literally impossible to live with.


Even were the point to be granted, it is not clear that much would be gained for the argument. For as far as the members of any given religion or cultural tradition would (or could) be concerned, this would appear to institutionalize precisely the sort of "autocratic in- terpretation" (517) that -as was posited earlier- Les-sing aimed to overcome. Only from the standpoint of a perspective bound to no tradition would the sort of interpretive free play referred to at that point be pos- sible; but, on the strength of the passage just cited, such a standpoint would itself appear to be impossible.

" This is the same man who, in the Vorrede to his Laokoon, wrote caustically: "An systematischen Biichern haben wir Deutschen iiberhaupt keinen Mangel. Aus ein Paar angenommenen Worterklarungen in der schon- sten Ordnung alles, was wir nur wollen, herzuleiten, darauf verstehen wir uns, Trotz einer Nation in der Welt" (LM, IX: 5). There are surely few important figures in the tradition with a more deeply ingrained or more salutary suspicion of mere talk than Lessing. " As Benjamin Bennett emphasizes, the full meaning of Nathan depends on the work's being performed and not merely read (as is generally true of drama, in accor- dance with the requirements implicit in its generic na- ture). See Modern Drama and German Classicism: Renaissancefrom Lessing to Brecht (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979) 87-93 and passim.

jh Cf. Robert Paul Wolff on the form of Kant's Grundlegung: "In summary, the structure of the Groundwork can be represented as follows, where P = Man stands under the Moral Law and Q = Man is capable of being moved by reason. Chapter 1: We all actually believe that P. Chapter 2: If Q then P. Chapter 3: It is logically possible that Q, and we must assume that Q if we are to act at all" (The Autonomy of Reason: A Commentary on KantS Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals [New York: Harper, 19731 35).

" In invoking the notion of a "gestalt shift," I do not mean to advert to Kuhn's widely noted and extensively dis- cussed use of the term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see 149 ff.; see n. 1). That usage, if 1 understand it correctly, differs in certain respects quite significantly from the sense I have in mind here. Similarly, it seems clearly not to be the case that the "[albsence of a definite religious message holds the Parable open to a variety of different interpretations,

both secular and religious"; nor, for the same reason, is there a "displacement of closure to a point beyond time and human history" (520) here. As commentators generally have done, Leventhal also speaks in this con- nection of the Parable's message of "religious tolerance [and] human equality before the law" (521). It is perhaps worth noting at the same time that these values do not seem too far removed from the "specific virtues" of Sanftmuth, Vertraglichkeit, Wohltun, and Ergebenheit in Gott which, as he has noted earlier, are in fact men- tioned specifically in the Parable (III.vii.529-31) but which, at that point in the exposition, he appeared to dismiss as merely "traditional, humanistic values, . . . extremely formal in character" (516-17). Nor do these four "virtues" strike me as conspicuously more "for- mal" than the characterization, in the paragraph that follows immediately, of "'moral' actions" as being, ac- cording to the teaching of the Parable, those that "oper- ate in a sense consistent with the equality and multi-

plicity of tradition and interpretation" (517).
See, for example, Philosophische Untersuchungen,
# 256-58; also Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein (London:
Men Lane, 1973) 190-94.


"Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language" 1406-
07 (see n. 7).
"Wittgenstein" 1407 (see n. 7).

"Against Deconstruction 80-81 (see n. 6). "' The text, entitled simply "Eine Parabel," appears at LM, XIII: 93-96.

" 'Ueber diese geschaftigen Zanker hatte er denn auch wirMich abbrennen konnen, der Pallast; wenn er ge- brannt hatte. -Aber die erschrocknen Wachter hatten ein Nordlicht fiir eine Feuersbrunst gehalten" (LM,

XIII: 96). ''Tractatus Losco-Philos@hicus, ed. D. F. Pears and

B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge; New York: The Humanities, 1972) 2.

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