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.