Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Richard Rorty died yesterday from pancreatic cancer.

I don't really know what to say. Rorty is probably the thinker who has influenced me the most. I first read him in Ralph Jewell's amazing seminars on the poetics of science when I took a grunnfag in philosophy. When I was re-reading him for my MA thesis, I became acutely aware of how much his thinking had seeped into the foundations of my world-view.

For more about Rorty, you can actually just check out the last couple of paragraphs of the previous post.


Some places to start with Rorty.

First, try reading this introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism from 1981. Here, Rorty gives a brief outline of how pragmatists think, and what the consequences of that position is. It's a good place to begin, and it's a way of determining if you like Rorty's whole approach to philosophy. I think one should not completely assimilate Rorty, and take all things which he say to heart. He is fuzzy on a lot of practical issues, and simplifies a lot of problems (possibly for rhetorical reasons - he is an eminently rhetorical philosopher). The most important thing one should take from him is the basic approach, I think. The way he makes things contingent and takes the consequences of a godless world to their last stop, and tries to create a practical philosophy in that position. He refuses throughout his bibliography to say that he is right, that he speaks the truth, and that this does not mean that he cannot make ethical judgements:

Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True or the Good, or to define the word "true" or "good," supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of "number." They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven't. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call "philosophy"-a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean that they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions any more. When they suggest that we not ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which says that "there is no such thing" as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they have a "relativistic" or "subjectivist" theory of Truth or Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject. They are in a position analogous to that of secularists who urge that research concerning the Nature, or the Will, of God does not get us anywhere. Such secularists are not saying that God does not exist, exactly; they feel unclear about what it would mean to affirm His existence, and thus about the point of denying it. Nor do they have some special, funny, heretical view about God. They just doubt that the vocabulary of theology is one we ought to be using. Similarly, pragmatists keep trying to find ways of making anti-philosophical points in non-philosophical language. For they face a dilemma if their language is too unphilosophical, too "literary," they will be accused of changing the subject; if it is too philosophical it will embody Platonic assumptions which will make it impossible for the pragmatist to state the conclusion he wants to reach.
And also the following, oft-quoted passage:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This 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, as is Sartre's remark:

Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are.

This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together- the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.

If you want to read a book-length work, Contingency Irony and Solidarity is probably the best introduction to his thinking. It's a very easily read, deceptively simple book. The argument of the book is basically an attack on foundationalist conceptions of language, self and community (a negative project); followed by an attempt to construct political and personal possibilities after taking those conceptions apart (a positive project).

First, he attempts to think of the language we use not as a device becoming better and better suited to the world around us, but as a tool for interaction with other human beings. Second, the idea of the self becomes an attempt at redescription of culture in a historical setting. Third, the idea of community becomes a rhetorical element. A set of arguments and descriptions of how certain institutions and ideas of community arose.

In chapter 4, he lays out the political possibilities for the ironist mindset which arises from these contingencies. The ironist is the personality Rorty has the most respect for. A humanist who is never quite able to take himself entirely serious, and is therefore never sure of his own rightness. These people are easily convinced of the right of other people to express their own ways of life, and hard to convince that certain rules should be made to be unbreakable and non-negotiable.

Next follows some readings of cranky old continental philosophers and Derrida, and readings of authors Proust, Nabokov and Orwell of which particularly the Orwell chapter is interesting. There, he basically argues that one of the lessons to take from Orwell is that characters like O'Brien in 1984 are possible. That we might at one point step off the wheel of history at the wrong place, and that one should never give up the diurnal struggle. All it takes is one bad generation before the torturers come knocking. And this is the vision which Rorty attempt to create an apparatus to prevent, O'Brien's vision of history. As an intellectual of the party, he can say the words with a straight face, as something to be desired: "If you want a
picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--for ever."

And as Winston pleads with him to convince him that such a society is impossible, he appeals to the Spirit of Man, and O'Brien tells him that if Winston is a man, he is the last one. That he is about to become extinct.

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Blogger suttonhoo said...

so sorry for your loss.

so strange that yesterday's prolific post coincided with his passing...

(need to circle back to finish: turned out to be too much to bite off before work. ;)

June 10, 2007 4:30 am  
Blogger Susanne Christensen said...

(Det var måske her jeg skulle komme tilbage til dig m.h.t. din skænding af Baudrillards grav, hm? Well, jeg er snill og linker (og gravskænder) ikke.)

June 10, 2007 2:27 pm  
Blogger Susanne Christensen said...

(Cool at hans mellemnavn var M'kay forresten.)

June 10, 2007 2:29 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Skænd i vej! I don't mind. Mmkay?

June 10, 2007 2:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a sad fact that old, distinguished academics and thinkers (not necessarily one and the same thing) must make the transition from "old" to "dead", but is still maddening that it has to happen to people like Rorty, to whom I've just begun to take a liking. Who's next? (my money's on a certain obese expert on Shakespeare...although it would be distasteful to mention any names)

June 10, 2007 2:57 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Hm. Yes. See my latest post.

June 10, 2007 3:01 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

But you're right, we shouldn't mention names.

June 10, 2007 3:10 pm  
Blogger Susanne Christensen said...

OMG, the day that person dies I'll cry so hard that some evil people might think I'm actually laughing! What a terrible thought.

June 10, 2007 4:08 pm  

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