Balkinization  

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

David Luban

The incomparable Richard Rorty has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75. Rorty was without a doubt the most influential living American philosopher, and (in my opinion) one of the two or three greatest. Many academic philosophers disagree, in no small part because Rorty argued that academic philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, is a pointless discipline that we should simply ignore. This view appeared in his 1979 masterpiece Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but it became increasingly spirited and blunt in the essays he wrote over the next twenty years, collected in six anthologies. (Full disclosure: I was the target of one of those essays, in Philosophy and Social Hope.) Rorty based his critique on a deep diagnosis of the history of philosophy – and the breadth and depth of his knowledge was staggering. Rorty infuriated analytic philosophers with what appeared on the surface to be a nonchalant dismissal of most of the problems they study. He simply didn't think there is much of a story to tell about the theory of knowledge or the philosophy of language – other than a historical story of how a series of mistakes got enshrined in an entire academic discipline. He didn't think there is a deep problem of truth, or of how "words represent the world." One of his best papers is titled "The World Well Lost," and one of his last books – a collection of interviews published a year or so ago – bears the wonderful title Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself. The titles say it all.

One result was a kind of exile from philosophy departments. When Rorty left the Princeton department (at the time the best analytic department in the country) – years later, he explained that "I'd spent years trying to be one of the boys, and now I didn't want to be one of the boys any more" – he became a university professor of humanities at U. Va. When he moved to Stanford, his professorship was in comparative literature. Much to the chagrin of philosophers, many theorists in comparative literature concluded from reading Rorty that they didn't actually need to read philosophers to opine about them; all they needed to know was in Rorty. Rorty was unfazed, but he once told me that in fact he didn't have a lot in common with many of his comparative literature colleagues.

In fact, Rorty never stopped reading philosophy, and he expressed tremendous admiration for Robert Brandom, his own student and one of the most complex contemporary analytic philosophers. Rorty himself had cemented his early reputation with some particularly hard-nosed work on the mind-body problem. In effect, his anti-philosophical work was a paradox, because even though Rorty never stopped calling for an end to philosophy, he never stopped writing it either, and his own career was in that way a terrible advertisement for his views.

As the Times obituary (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/11/obituaries/11rorty.html?ref=obituaries ) mentions, Rorty grew up in a prominent left-wing family, part of the left anti-Stalinist intellectual "aristocracy." In his last twenty years, Rorty returned to origins and wrote more and more about political issues, often in a surprising way. (For example, in his brilliant essay on human rights in the Oxford Amnesty Lectures, he denied that there is any philosophical foundation for human rights, or even any knock-down argument for human rights, beyond telling "sad, sentimental stories" about the victims of violations - but that is enough.) He developed a position he called "liberal irony," argued for "social hope," and staked out a remarkable form of progressive American patriotism.

Rorty was wonderfully witty, both in person and in print. But in person you had to listen carefully to hear the wit, because his self-presentation was deeply understated. He spoke slowly, calmly, quietly, and – it sometimes seemed – without moving his teeth. Once – almost twenty years ago – I asked him about his own future plans, and he said, "Oh, I guess I'll crank out a few more defenses of pragmatism and then retire." (He published seven more books after that, all of them incredibly original.) He presented the most radical views in the most unradical manner. In 2005, I attended a vintage Rorty talk on reason and religion, in which it seemed that he was deliberately setting out to antagonize everyone in the room no matter what their beliefs. He argued for two main theses: that there are absolutely no rational grounds for preferring scientific accounts of nature to New Earth creationism; and that nevertheless this provides no basis for giving New Earth creationists equal time in the universities, because it's "politically important that universities remain bastions of anti-clericalism." All of this he delivered in such a low-key, understated way that (to my amazement, and no doubt to Rorty's disappointment) he failed to provoke anyone.

This was very different from a talk he gave to a large audience in New York ten years earlier, where it became clear in the question-and-answer session that many in the audience had been waiting for years to unload on Rorty in public. He faced one hostile question after another, delivered in scathing rhetoric, mostly having nothing to do with the paper he had just presented (which happened to be a defense of polytheism!). Rorty was absolutely unflappable, utterly polite, very low key – but he never backed down an inch. I happened to be sitting next to Richard Posner, who whispered to me "I love the way Rorty handles questions." Well, me too! For someone who held flamboyant views, and who could be quite devastating in print, Rorty was both deeply civil and deeply civilized.

When Rorty learned that he had pancreatic cancer, his daughter reminded him that Derrida had it as well and told him it came from reading too much Heidegger, which greatly amused him. He kept writing, lecturing, and attending conferences until very recently, when he became too weak to continue. (A good example of how incisive Rorty remained during his illness is his New York Times review of Marc Hauser's Moral Minds.) Near the end, he was racing death to complete a reply to his critics for a volume devoted to him in the "Library of Living Philosophers."

Comments:

He argued for two main theses: that there are absolutely no rational grounds for preferring scientific accounts of nature to New Earth creationism; and that nevertheless this provides no basis for giving New Earth creationists equal time in the universities, because it's "politically important that universities remain bastions of anti-clericalism."

Prof. Luban could not have better put what was so detestable about Rorty's style of thinking, or better, non-thinking. From at least CIS on, Rorty appears to have believed that disputes come down to the use of force, because there is no other way to resolve them.

The "metaphysician" who argues for fitting our disparate values into a common worldview that unites us, is rejected by Rorty in favor of the "ironist" who sees no need for any such worldview. Yet, rhetorically and pragmatically, which approach is "better in the way of belief"?

One could write a devastating attack on Rorty by composing the ironist's reply to King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
 

Sorry, Anderson: Rorty never suggested that disputes come down to the use of force, in CIS or anywhere else I know of. In the particular speech I was summarizing, his argument (as best I remember it) was that the creationist and naturalist don't share premises about what rationality is - does it or does it not allow appeals to the supernatural? There is no non-circular way to use rationality in order to settle what rationality is, given the gulf between starting points. But that doesn't mean the alternative is force: Rorty's favored alternative was changing minds through means other than strict argument, for example through literature, or appeals to sentiment. If you re-read the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," you will see that MLK relied on far more than strict argument to make his case.
 

Rorty took a wrong turn at the description theory of reference and then went increasingly off-course from there.

People excuse his extremist version of pragmatism because he allegedly had generally liberal values, but his own pragmatism put those liberal values at serious risk.

In a pure power struggle, ideas (including liberalism) lose and pure power wins. That's what we're seeing in American politics today.

It is only when people respect Enlightenment values like truth and reason that liberal values get anywhere.

If Rorty truly valued those liberal values, he should have argued against pragmatism -- for pragmatic reasons. The fact that he didn't suggests that he valued telling everyone they were wrong above all.
 

I thought Rorty was best when he got into the details of contemporary analytic debates and showed how stupid they often are. He was not afraid to point out that academic philosophy is a career for those who practice it, and that the demands of the career (teaching the same sterile debates to undergraduates over and over, publishing one contrived exercise in hackery after another in all the eminent journals that no self-respecting intellectual would ever read) dictate the direction of contemporary philosophical thought. He was absolutely right that philosophy of language in particular is a joke and a torture of the mind. Anyone in doubt on that point should flip through Scott Soames's recent history of analytic philosophy (but hold your nose). I would guess that 95% of the profession today think Saul Kripke and David Lewis are/were more original and important thinkers than Dewey or Heidegger--what more do you need to know? Rorty was not so great at developing his own positions. He wanted to renounce philosophical propositions, but then he kept formulating his own, and what he came up with was rather lousy.
According to an earlier comment, Rorty posed a threat to "enlightenment values like truth and reason". This is wrong for a very simple reason: Rorty made many people examine the boundaries of their own thinking, unlike today's nerds. And the implication that the thousands of squirrels in today's philosophy departments, who take their cues on truth from Frege or Tarski and are ever so serious about it, are pillars in the shakey house of reason, needs to be debunked. Today's philosophers have almost nothing of value to say on real moral and political problems, perhaps least of all those who try to say whether values are real or not. Their basic characteristic as thinkers is that they would rather define than understand.
 

Professor Luban writes, "Rorty never suggested that disputes come down to the use of force, in CIS or anywhere else I know of. In the particular speech I was summarizing, his argument (as best I remember it) was that the creationist and naturalist don't share premises about what rationality is - does it or does it not allow appeals to the supernatural? There is no non-circular way to use rationality in order to settle what rationality is, given the gulf between starting points. But that doesn't mean the alternative is force: Rorty's favored alternative was changing minds through means other than strict argument, for example through literature, or appeals to sentiment. If you re-read the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," you will see that MLK relied on far more than strict argument to make his case."

The circularity problem alluded to here is ubiquitous in the debates on issues that are important to people. It is juvenile to think one can 'agree on the rules and terms of the debate' in the abstract before engaging in it. That's a point that would seem to be superfluous on a blog populated by lawyers talking law! Rhetoric is about finding the persuasive ingredients in any subject or situation, but that doesn't mean that there are no distinctions between good rhetoric and bad rhetoric or good arguments and bad ones. It does mean that, in the 'real world' sadly, we don't get to walk out with the umpires and discuss the ground rules in a given park before we throw the first pitch.
 

Sorry, Anderson: Rorty never suggested that disputes come down to the use of force, in CIS or anywhere else I know of.

CIS is searchable on Amazon, god bless 'em:

When the ironist claims that her redescription is better, she cannot give the term "better" the reassuring weight the metaphysician gives it when he explains it as "in better correspondence with reality."

* * * She [the ironist] cannot claim that adopting her redescription of yourself or your situation makes you better able to conquer the forces which are marshaled against you. On her account, that ability is a matter of weapons and luck, not a matter of having truth on your side, or having detected the "movement of history."


CIS, p. 91. The surrounding pages are also interesting for Rorty's naive faith in the public/private distinction, he apparently never having read a secondary work on J.S. Mill in his life.
 

(Incidentally, tho I never noticed it before, defining "human" as "able to suffer pain and humiliation," CIS at 92, is so hilariously straight from Nietzsche's treatment of "slave morality" that it's egregious of Rorty not to have cited him ... I wonder why not?)
 

But in person you had to listen carefully to hear the wit, because his self-presentation was deeply understated.

Huh. I'm hardly one to always catch understated humor, but I always found Rorty not only straightforwardly witty but straightforwardly funny in his public talks-- unusually so. Maybe his wit just happened to be in precisely the right register for me to take it as being right there on the surface. Similarly, everyone else describes him as having a kind of glum persona, and he always looked to me like he was having fun.
 

For me the sad thing about Rorty (and it's interesting to hear others' in-person perceptions of him; when I heard him lecture he sounded depressed) was that the value of his pragmatic critiques of the scientism, irrelevance, etc., of contemporary analytic philosophy ultimately got lost in something very much like neo-positivism -- a stubborn insistence on a strictly behaviorist theory of meaning (which he himself recognized was "reminiscent of the positivists’ verificationism") combined with an (equally stubborn) insistence on a kind of discourse nominalism, the notion that one can blithely live out one's life in incommensurable discourses (or "vocabularies") with out ever experiencing a conflict or need to reconcile them ("We should confine ourselves to making sure that we are not burdened with obsolete ways of speaking, and then insuring that those vocabularies that are still useful stay out of each other’s way"). (The quotes are from a 2005 talk, "Naturalism and Quietism," available on-line.) The net result was the kind of theses that drove me (and others as well) crazy in CIS, to the effect that we can ironize -- by which he meant, question critically -- the liberal values handed down to us by tradition in private, but we had better stand by them in public regardless of the results of that (private) critical inquiry. That is, Rorty's pragmatism seemed to end not just in a rejection of pointless philosophizing, but in exhortations to avoid critical thought more generally. The problem is that at least for some people (many of whom are religious but not all), meaning means something more than patterns of behavior, and, I think, for virtually everyone, it's essentially impossible to keep vocabularies from "getting in each other's way" -- at least, vocabularies that one actually lives in or through. Critical thought thus isn't just a life-choice or language game that can be passed up in favor of something else; it's forced on (at least some of) us by an existential condition. Rorty started out telling us that philosophy shouldn't scratch where it doesn't itch but ended up with a philosophy that amounts to urging us to stop itching, which isn't nearly as useful advice.
 

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