Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

Richard Rorty, one of the most influential philosophers of the latter half of the twentieth century, died Friday. One of Rorty's great contributions to philosophy and social thought was his capacity for integrating what he deemed useful ideas from past philosophical giants and then melding them into his own unique vision. In particular, Rorty was able to work both continental and analytic philosophical audiences. Of English speaking philosophers William James, John Dewey, W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Thomas Kuhn, and Wilfrid Sellars--together with the German speaking, Ludwig Wittenstein-- had the greatest impact on Rorty's pragmatism. Of continental philosophers, Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Frederick Nietzsche were key to Rorty's developed views.

Although often in disfavor, unjustifiably in my view, with large segments of analytic philosophy, at the beginning of his career he was an analytic philosopher's analytic philosopher. In abandoning analytic philosophy Rorty rejected Western philosophy's obsession with epistemology and such modernist terms as "truth," "reason, "reality," "mind," "human nature. In Rorty's view, these concepts have no currency, or put differently, they are empty vessels that prevent us from seeing language as pragmatic tool for improving the world. This pragmatic turn drew Rorty to the idea of philosophy as uncoerced conversation--a notion partly inherited from Michael Oakeshott--about our intellectual and practical challenges. Language, for Rorty, is a form of social behavior used to help us cope with our environment. The pursuit of "truth," "reality," and "reason" simply obscure the quest to reduce cruelty. These concepts should be rejected, in his view, because they simply get in the way of achieving our goals. Truth, for instance, is nothing more than warranted assertability. We are warranted in asserting various sentences when doing so has utility. To insist that the utility of a sentence is its truth is, for Rorty, question-begging in the extreme. Let me present a brief example of the difference between Rorty's approach and the approach of the analytic philosopher, Bernard Williams.

Williams was not enamored with Rorty's idea of conversation. In fact, Williams thought that
"[u]nless a conversation is very relentless--for instance, on between philosophers--it will not be held together by "so" or "therefore" or "but," but by rather by "will then" and "that reminds me," and come to think of it." In these remarks Williams contrasts logical connectors with rhetorical ones. The former reveals the rigorous (logically) argumentative status of philosophy, while the latter represents linguistic connectors which we insert in a conversation with an insouciant air. The former potentially gets us truth, while the latter gives us only autobiography. For Williams, Rorty's notion of conversation obscures this distinction, and thus must be rejected.

The problem with Williams' view is that it begs the very
question at issue between him and Rorty. Rorty deliberately collapses argument and rhetoric and instead evaluates conversational conclusions by how well they help us to cope with various challenges in living. This defense does not mean that Williams' view is wrong. It just means distinguishing various linguistic operators as a means of discrediting Rorty, as William does, rests on first establishing that there is a difference between truth and warranted assertability, between logic and rhetoric, but it is precisely these issues that divide Williams and Rorty. To lament that Rorty's idea of conversation transmogrifies argument into autobiography is conceivably a valid criticism of Rorty's view only after showing that these purportedly dichotomous linguistic uses have the force that Williams insists they have, and that's precisely what Rorty denies.

Rorty was a public intellectual, in the finest sense of the term. He was extraordinarily well-read,
though one complaint against his work is that he tended to misread, or read for his own purposes, the giants of analytic and continental philosophy. But this complaint is unfair. Rorty never presented himself as a philosopher devoted to textual exegesis. He took from the greats what he thought helpful even if, in doing so, he strayed from a traditional understanding of these philosophers. In brief, Rorty was saying "Let's just try understanding Dewey in this way because doing so might be helpful in resolving challenging practical problems."

In the final analysis, Rorty did more to challenge analytic philosophy's dogmas than any other English speaking philosopher. To his credit, Rorty broke free from the confines of analytic philosophy and was rewarded by having his work read by intellectuals in such varied disciplines as social science, law, history, and literary theory. Rorty's was intent upon showing that analyzing "indexicals" or "vagueness" or "mass nouns"--and whatever other arcane concepts were fashionable in analytic philosophy--represented an especially crabbed view of intellectual discourse and philosophical categories left standing after Rorty's critique. (Are there any philosophical categories left standing after Rorty's critique?) For me, Rorty's greatest contribution was to suggest that there exists a form of intellectual discourse freed from the traditional analytic philosophical categories and that this discourse can be used to illuminate a range of problems across diverse academic and practical categories. For Rorty, inquiry dedicated to how things are prevents us--sometimes permanently--from creating a better world, one whose overriding promise is to reduce cruelty and suffering. When philosophers eschew attempting to realize this promise, their work becomes jejune and largely irrelevant to collective solutions to problems of political and social organization.

Rorty was the faculty adviser to philosophy, graduate students when I was a doctoral student at Princeton in the late sixties. In my fourth and final year, I recall Rorty telling us "No more reading, it's time to write." Some of us heeded his advice better than others, but the advice itself was right on the money. He was a soft-spoken, complex man, who was admired by those students who knew him.

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