June 11, 2007


OBIT: Richard Rorty (Daily Telegraph, 11/06/2007)

The central plank of Rorty's thinking was laid out in his most influential book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), though his scepticism about epistemology (questions about what we know) and external truth had caused a stir when they were first raised in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 10 years earlier.

Rorty distinguished between the "metaphysician" - which in his description included all those absorbed by the questions of traditional philosophy - and the "ironist", his preferred philosophical hero.

(Or, rather, heroine, for he adopted the now-fashionable academic practice of using "she" as a neuter pronoun when writing of ironists. A metaphysician remained "he", however, perhaps to emphasise his wrongness.)

The two positions were separated by their "final vocabulary", words such as "true"; "right"; "good" and "beautiful" (and, at a lower level, terms such as "professional standards"; "decency"; "kindness"; "Christ"; "England"; "creative"; "the Revolution" and so on) which were as far as people could go in using language to justify their beliefs, actions and ambitions.

Ironists are distinguished from metaphysicians, in Rorty's view, by their distrust of such vocabularies, because they are aware of completing vocabularies, and by the fact that the existence of the vocabulary does nothing to shore up such doubts.

In addition, the ironist does not believe that her vocabulary is better than anyone else's, nor that it corresponds to any external truth.

Ironists are thus those for whom nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence, and for whom the history and naming of a term are descriptive; metaphysicians are those who attempt to use common sense and philosophical tools, such as the Socratic method, to take the question "What is the intrinsic nature of (eg, justice, science, knowledge, Being, faith, morality, philosophy)?" at face value.

Metaphysicians divide libraries according to disciplines, assigning Pythagoras, Plato, Goethe, Kant, Darwin and Freud to mathematics, literature, science, philosophy and so on. Ironists see them as divided according to traditions, and are distrustful of genres.

Naturally, this went down badly with philosophers in the rigorous Anglo-American analytic tradition, and even some in the Continental schools.

Equally naturally, it was tremendously popular among social scientists, English Literature departments, film-makers, architects and all those who distrusted unifying theories.

Rorty's arguments began to be regarded as one of the central intellectual pillars for postmodernism, a doctrine sceptical of doctrines, which dismissed the possibility and desirability of intellectual pillars; The Fontana Postmodernism Reader simply called him "America's most eminent philosopher".

Mr. Rorty, like many an Anglospheric philosopher and unlike the continentals, was sufficiently honest that he undermined his own theories, not least when he admitted that he and other avowed atheists were "freeloading" on Judeo-Christianity, since Rationalism has proved itself utterly incapable of deriving morality in the absence of God.

How Richard Rorty Found Religion (Jason Boffetti, May 2004, First Things).

Rorty says that he now agrees with his sometime critic, Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontents that it may never be possible to separate morality and religion entirely...

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2007 12:00 AM

Ironic, that.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 10, 2007 10:54 PM