Sunday, June 10, 2007
Richard Rorty, 1931-2007
I got to meet the Great Man once. He came through Singapore in 2003 (I think it was). He gave a talk that was stock Rorty stuff - novels better than philosophy - but then was quite lively and responsive, i.e. saying things I hadn’t heard him say before, in the Q&A. And great fun at lunch.
In my experience, there are two ways Great Men respond to strong critics, in Q & A. 1) By not listening. 2) By being willing to concede ‘yes, of course, your fundamental critique of my position seems to have considerable force’. Then, five minutes later, they are back to saying whatever it was they were saying before. Rorty was definitely the latter sort - which is, I think, better than the former sort.
Then later I had the temerity to email him something I had written, to ask his opinion. He promptly read it and gave me comments. I’ve heard other people tell me they got the same sort of remarkably generous response. The man answered his mail. No small virtue, I should say.
I’ll be interested to see what sorts of dueling narratives of his career mark his passing. I predict that, one the whole, the treatment will be generous.
The Standard Myth is that Rorty was a persecuted Prophet Without Honor in His Hometown, i.e. the philosophy department. I don’t really think there is so much truth to that picture - certainly not today, although maybe there was a larger truth kernel 20 years ago. Tales of teachers hand-wringingly warning their students not to read Rorty, lest their souls be corrupted. I’ve never seen it happen, and I doubt it was ever a major trend (though, no doubt, you could find a few cases.) The truth, it seems to me, is that anyone who says the whole discipline is, in some sense, illegitimate, can expect a serious amount of push-back. And that is what he got. In the end, he received careful, considerate, respectful critical treatment from a large number of prominent figures - as seen by the contributors list to volumes like Rorty and His Critics, which I have written about here before. Which is a good thing, because he deserved it.
It’s nice to know that I’m now in charge of the standard myth. I hope my new power doesn’t go to my head.
Rorty tried to change philosophy and failed, and he ended up outside philosophy. He wasn’t trying to abolish philosophy but to broaden it, and in his milder moments (Consequences of Pragmatism, I think) he allowed that it was OK with him if the people he argued against continued their work as before, as long as a place were made for the stuff he was talking about. As far as I know it didn’t happen.
Whatever the case was with Rorty (who I think had tenure before he started stepping on people’s toes), Stephen Toulmin was squeezed out of the profession, and he has written about that. Ernest Gellner also was squeezed out, and he has written about that too. From an analytic point of view, good! These guys were wrong, that’s all. From my point of view, bad! We’re in the boo-hurrah zone, nothing to argue about. Comity.
I am always accused of substituting sociological criticisms for intellectual criticism, but the present sociology of academia is homogenizing. When hiring decisions and career possibilities are impacted as heavily as they are by majority-vote rankings of the Leiter report type, and when the rankings treat differences of intellectual approach as differences in professional competences, anything outside the consensus gets hammered down.
Professional philosophy (and academia generally) never was wide open, and it never should have been, but since WWII a variety have “sociological and political” forces have worked towards exclusionary uniformity. (Yes, there’s approved diversity within the enforced consensus; but some are excluded).
I suppose I never found Rorty all that interesting a thinker. Pragmatism is like that. Dewey had art and education to give social and intellectual weight to the thinking; James had psychology, belief, and religion. But Rorty had . . . what? He was perhaps the most discipline-oriented philosopher of the pragmatists, but his philosophy fell short of intellectual rigor (see Susan Haack’s devasting critique of Rorty in *Manifestos of a Passionate Moderate*). Martha Nussbaum did the “literature is better than philosophy” thing much better than Rorty, in part because she replaced “is better than” with “is a form of.” And she focused on ethics, to which literature contributes greatly.
It’s sad that we’re losing members of this great generation of High Theorists: Foucault and Barthes a while back, Derrida and Rorty and Said more recently. But at the same time, as we look back, it’s like wondering why so many people drank the Kool-Aid. In hindsight, it was obviously, if not poisonous, than pissed-in.
First Mr. Cheez Whiz and now Rorty.
Rorty had been slated to receive an honorary degree at Harvard a couple days ago.
LB: Rorty represented yet another turn in Pragmatism, in some ways back to C.S.Peirce, whom I find complementary to Bakhtin, as I said in talking about The First 100 Years, here (complete with ToS visitation). Haack has her own turn-signal flashing. But it ain’t just ethics, it’s epistemology and hermeneutics that literature does better.
Mr. Waggish has a better informed take. (In my case, aside from pragmatic considerations, Rorty seemed to provoke argument rather than agreement, which strikes me as a more productive, if riskier, way of doing philosophy.)
Are we really still doing the “Theory as Kool-Aid” routine?
Yes. We are still doing the Theory as Kool-Aid routine. And remember, you mothers, you control how much sugar you add.
Umm. Rorty was many things but a turn back to Peirce he was not. They are pretty much at odds - extremely at odds. It pretty arguable that Rorty wasn’t the Deweyean he claimed but he probably made as big a shift from the pragmatism of Dewey as Dewey did from James and Peirce.
Slate has published appreciations of Rorty by Richard Posner, Brian Eno, Mark Edmundson, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, Virginia Heffernan, Michael Bérubé, and Stanley Fish.