Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty, RIP

Richard Rorty, who died yesterday, will undoubtedly be remembered most for his contributions to the fields he came to value least: metaphysics and epistemology. Rorty's views about the point of philosophy were sensible enough but to my mind his expression of them never quite rivaled that of William James. (Rorty was a better writer than the other great pragmatists, Pierce and Dewey, but that's not saying very much). Rorty's distinctive contribution to philosophy---set out in the first few chapters of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature---is a challenge to the traditional view of the relation between the world and our conception of it. In traditional philosophy, our minds try to create as close a model as possible of the world as it really is as they can; they try to mirror nature. Rorty challenged this way of thinking, and though he wasn't completely original---Wittgenstein in particular made similar claims about the relation between the world and our language---he was the most sweeping.

Postmodernists and relativists often invoked Rorty to make extremely skeptical claims, and his language sometimes encouraged such use of his work, but at bottom Rorty was not a skeptic. Far from it. When Rorty argued that moral truths are not absolute in some ultimate sense, he was not making a claim about meta-ethics. He was not, in other words, saying that morality is bunk in virtue of being a co-product of the mind and whatever external stimuli the mind receives. He said the same exact sorts of things about scientific truths and moral truths, and what he said (again echoing James) was essentially: get over it. We can't be certain that slavery is REALLY wrong, in exactly the same way that we can't be certain that there REALLY are mountains, but the former limit shouldn't stop us from trying to put an end to slavery any more than the latter limit should cause us to worry that what appear to be mountains are really holographic projections displayed by a mad genius.

Accordingly, I think it's a serious mistake to think of the later Rorty---interested in a wide range of subjects including politics---as somehow inconsistent with the early Rorty's skepticism. The early Rorty was not a skeptic in the sense of someone whose only intellectual move is doubt. His goal was almost the exact opposite: to make possible action even in the face of doubt.

Rorty may or may not have been right about these issues, but it would be a shame if his memory were tarnished by the most unpragmatic postmodernists who purported to follow in his footsteps.


Derek said...

For anyone who is interested, Simon Blackburn wrote a great piece on Rorty and his views a few years back:

Thomas Healy said...


Your description of Rorty's work -- which I haven't read -- reminds me of Stanley Fish's writing. In his book "The Trouble With Principle," Fish argues that liberalism's invocation of "neutral principles" is disingenuous because we can never transcend our own subjectivity to discover universally applicable principles. But instead of viewing this as an excuse for nihilism, Fish says we must fight for the principles we believe in, albeit without the aid of the conceit that they are neutral.

And Fish's writing reminds me of Holmes, who has the following great passage in one of his letters describing the conflict between progressives and reactionaries:

"If I were a philosopher I should say -- Fools both, not to see that you are the two blades (conservative and radical) of the shears that cut out the future. But if I were the ironical man in the back of the philosopher's head I should conclude -- Greatest fool of all, Thou -- not to see that man's destiny is to fight. Therefore take thy place on the one side or the other, if with the added grace of knowing that the Enemy is as good a man as thou, so much the better, but kill him if thou Canst."

Is Rorty simply channeling Holmes, or is there some subtlety to his work that builds on Holmes' insight?

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