June 17, 2007


Richard Rorty’s legacy (Roger Scruton, 2007-06-12, OpenDemocracy)

Rorty began his career as an exponent of the analytical philosophy which was, and to a great extent remains, the principal school in the Anglophone academy. His early papers on subjectivity, consciousness and the first-person case were rightly admired and, in the small way which is the way of real advances, were taken up and added to by other writers. At a certain point, however, Rorty suffered a conversion experience, rebelling against analytical philosophy not, primarily, because of its finicky irrelevancies, but because of its entirely erroneous vision - as Rorty saw it - of the nature of human thinking, and of the relation between thought and the world.

The result was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a schizophrenic book, the first half of which repackaged Rorty's work as an analytic philosopher of mind, the second half of which argued that there is no such thing as an analytic philosophy of mind, since philosophy does not hold a mirror up to nature, but moves forward with the logic of history, constantly seeking new conceptions for which there is no standard outside philosophy itself. His painstaking refutation of the Cartesian theory of the mind in his early papers was thereby eclipsed by a far from painstaking dismissal of Descartes and all who thought like him. Such thinkers, according to Rorty, make the mistake of believing that a God's eye perspective on the world is attainable and that it is the task of philosophy to ascend to it.

Rorty tried to make sense of his new position by espousing a version of "pragmatism" - the school associated with CS Peirce, William James and John Dewey, which holds that the concept of truth is to be understood through that of utility. Pragmatism is controversial, but its more recent followers have, on the whole, managed to avoid its more paradoxical implications - such as that the core doctrines of feminism must be true since it is useful (at least in an American university) to assent to them, but that they must certainly be false, given the disaster that would come from espousing them in rural Iran.

It is uncertain to what extent Rorty succeeded in escaping that kind of paradox. For, unlike fellow pragmatists like CI Lewis or WV Quine, he adopted pragmatism as a revisionary theory, one that changes the aspect of the world, and opens the way to moral, social and political possibilities that have been blocked by the rigid truth-directedness of traditional philosophical thought. In a series of papers, therefore, Rorty experimented with highly politicised applications of the pragmatist idea, arguing that "pragmatists view truth as... what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called ‘correspondence', nor an account of human cognitive abilities which ensures that our species is capable of entering into that relation. They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. From a pragmatist point of view, to say that what is rational for us now to believe may not be true, is simply to say that somebody may come up with a better idea..." (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991).

That quotation would prompt a quick response from any philosopher suspicious of the pragmatist tendency, namely: "When is one idea better than another? When it is more useful? Or when it is more true? Are we not going round in a circle here?"

Though he gets compared to the continental philosophers, Rorty was squarely in the Anglospheric tradition in his admission that Rationalism has no basis in reason. What made him a man of the Left, rather than the Right, was his insistence that he then arrived at his modus vivendi by the operation of Reason anyway, in the form of Pragmatism, when what he really meant was that he arrived there via aesthetics and, as he conceded, it was the aesthetic of Judeo-Christianity. This set of concessions, peculiar to the Anglo-American Left, leaves folks in the peculiar position of denying the efficacy of Reason because it is internally incoherent and inconsistent and falling back upon Faith, but then making their own faith incoherent and inconsistent by denying its basis. This operation has rendered our Left far less dangerous than that of the Continent and unendingly amusing.

-TRIBUTE: End Point: Richard Rorty's blasé liberalism. (Damon Linker, 6/12/07, New Republic)

Richard Rorty, who died last Friday at the age of 75, was arguably the most influential American philosopher of the past 30 years. That is not to say, however, that he significantly influenced the ideas and intellectual habits of American professors of philosophy. On the contrary, Rorty, who taught comparative literature at Stanford University during the final decade of his life, was treated as a pariah by professional philosophers. And who could blame them? Rorty's notoriety derived in large part from his claim that philosophy as it is practiced by professional philosophers--as the pursuit of timeless truth about the objective world--is futile. No one likes to be told that he has devoted his life and career to an illusion, least of all a philosopher devoted to dispelling the illusions of others.

But skepticism about Rorty's skepticism was not merely the product of professional pride. For anyone familiar with the drama of continental European (and especially German) philosophy during the past two centuries, Rorty's thought appeared to be profoundly derivative. Rorty recapitulated the ideas of numerous philosophers, including Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida--all of whom believed that the effort to acquire absolute knowledge of the whole of reality had reached an endpoint in our time.

The philosophers (or rather, the anti-philosophers) in this tradition also tended to treat the terminus of philosophy as an epochal event. Nietzsche and Heidegger, in particular, believed that the demise of philosophy signaled the immanent collapse of the intellectual and cultural foundations of Western civilization, which they heralded with a mixture of dread and elation. The West, they insisted, was on the brink of a millennial shift to a new dispensation beyond Judeo-Christianity, beyond modernity, beyond rationality, beyond science, beyond good and evil. It was impossible to anticipate precisely what this new world would look like. All we could know is that it would differ as profoundly from what came before as the rationalistic world of Plato and Aristotle differed from the pre-philosophic world of Homeric myth.

Here Rorty broke decisively with his continental-European precursors. Dismissing their eschatological hopes with shrug of the shoulders, Rorty insisted that the Western philosophical tradition terminates not in the advent of a radically new world but rather in a world precisely like our own. Once human beings give up their quest to find a foundation for their political views in nature, reason, or theology--the quest for capital-T Truth--they will finally begin to value whatever is useful, whatever works, whatever enables them to live in a state of equality, tolerance, and peace. In other words, the end of philosophy culminates in the universal affirmation of pragmatic American liberalism.

-TRIBUTE: The patriot: Richard Rorty was a philosopher who hated philosophy -- and a lefty who loved his country (Todd Gitlin, June 17, 2007, Boston Globe)
Rorty was also, in the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "an anti-philosopher's philosopher." [...]

He outraged many philosophers, too, when he declared, not always gently, that it was a waste of time to ask the old questions about how we know what we think we know. They thought he contradicted himself, betraying his early rigor.

Here, he stood squarely in the heretical line of his great 19th and 20th century predecessors, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but with a decidedly American accent and earthiness. He was, like them, a corrupter of youth and age alike, giving many intellectuals (myself included) a swift kick out of our dogmatic slumbers. In his ability to win the respect of those he provoked, he heeded Blake's edict: "Opposition is true Friendship." On hearing of his death, a former student at the University of Virginia went online to comment: "He was so accessible and stimulating, it almost felt like we were at a university."

His personal grace and generosity did nothing to weaken his influence. In the '90s and afterward, Rorty did more than anyone else in the academy to articulate a liberal and social-democratic politics that was at once passionate, intellectually respectable, and unimpressed by radical gestures. Though an early importer of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger, he chopped his way out from the underbrush of what came to be called Theory (with a very capital T) by rendering unto politics what politics was due -- straightforwardness.

Talk about a straight-talk express: In "Achieving Our Country," Rorty savaged the academic left for letting its rancor and fanciness get the better of it. "We now have, among many American students and teachers, a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country," he wrote there.

By "achieving our country" -- a phrase from James Baldwin -- he meant fulfilling its small-d democratic potential by reviving a "reformist left," exemplified in the New Deal. Though he favored most of what the Sixties' New Left accomplished, he lashed out at its late, frequent, and tragic anti-American revels. Veterans of that era who remained unreconstructed thought he was too harsh; others, like this writer, thought he was dead on.

"Achieving Our Country" was well-received by writers on the liberal and social-democratic left who had wearied of academic smugness, jargon, and marginality. The political historian Alan Ryan lauded it in The New York Times Book Review for affirming "that national pride is the political equivalent of individual self-respect. Without it, nothing can be achieved." No matter that unreconstructed partisans of the cultural left sneered at Rorty for insufficient anticapitalism -- it went with the territory.

But Rorty's version of a national pride that refuses to turn a blind eye to America's sins also outraged conservatives. His attempt to reconnect the American left with the romance of two great small-d democrats -- Walt Whitman, the chronicler of American energies, and John Dewey, the philosopher of public conversation -- did not impress George Will, who devoted a Newsweek column to trashing "Achieving Our Country" ("a remarkably bad book" that "radiates contempt for the country"). In The Weekly Standard, David Brooks called some of Rorty's predictions "loopy, paranoid, idiotic," but his main complaint was that the very risible Rorty was a spotlight hog: "if you strip away Rorty's grand declarations about the death of God and Truth and get down to the type of public personality that Rorty calls for, he begins to appear instead as the Norman Rockwell for the intellectual bourgeoisie."

-TRIBUTE: Richard Rorty: What made him a crucial American philosopher? (Stephen Metcalf, June 15, 2007, Slate)

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2007 9:05 AM

"In the classical sense he was of course a philosopher -- a lover of wisdom -- and only another philosopher could have denied it."

Sigh...no, he denied the very existence of wisdom, Mr. Gitlin. It's depressing to see such sloppiness.

Posted by: DW at June 17, 2007 8:39 PM

Once upon a time, when I was a subcommittee staffer for a Congressman in Washington, I pretty much abused my privileges at the Library of Congress: sometimes I would put in a book order for my boss that was actually for me.

One such book was called "The Promise Of Pragmatism" by a Mr. Diggins, IIRC. Somebody recommended it to me. Anyway, I got it and read it. It was interesting, and I learned a lot about an area of American philosophy I didn't know too much about. The book wrapped up with Rorty. The writer was sympathetic to the pragmatists, but he didn't exactly rave over them.

I looked around me at goings-on in Congress, and tried to discover some Large-"P" Pragmatical method, procedure, or mindset in action there. It I did not descry (but heck, I was only 24, and there were parties to go to). In any case, it was the beginning and end of my interest in pragmatism.

Posted by: Twn at June 18, 2007 9:24 AM