Sunday, June 10, 2007

NYT Obituary of Rorty

The NYT obituary of Rorty appeared earlier today. My favorite quote:

[H]e relied primarily on the only authentic American philosophy, pragmatism, which was developed by John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James and others more than 100 years ago. “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons,” Mr. Rorty wrote. In other words, “truth is not out there,” separate from our own beliefs and language. And those beliefs and words evolved, just as opposable thumbs evolved, to help human beings “cope with the environment” and “enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain.”
First, I smiled at the description of pragmatism as "the only authentic American philosophy." I agree, but I'm not sure I'd ever say it. So it is nice to see it said.

Second, the rest of the paragraph is just a mish-mash. The idea that "what counts as knowledge and truth" = "what one's peers will let one get away with" is not something that Peirce, James or Dewey would have agreed with, nor is it a recognizably pragmatic idea. And, in addition, the idea that truth is "what one's peers will let one get away with" doesn't equal the idea that the "truth is not out there." You can agree with the latter without agreeing with the former. (Truth may be non-transcendent yet still not socially relative.) And, finally, the last sentence makes Rorty sound much more like a naturalist than he ever was.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty 1931-2007

According to the Leiter Report linking to Telos Press Richard Rorty died on Friday. (I haven't been able to find any other notice of Rorty's death, though someone did update his Wikipedia page.)

This is sad news and it will be interesting to see how philosophers and others react in the coming days. Rorty deserves a lot of credit for bringing pragmatism back into vogue yet he was also the target of constant attacks from pragmatist scholars (and others) for peddling a dumbed down, relativized version.

A few recollections and reactions:

I heard Rorty speak twice and both times it was a powerful experience. I only vaguely remember the topics but what stood out was his delivery: probably the best I have ever heard, or very, very close. At the time he reminded me of no one as much as John Chancellor, the former NBC news anchor. Rorty read his remarks with a clarity and fluidity that most people cannot match when they speak off the cuff. Despite reading, he conveyed his thoughts in a manner as if he was speaking across the dining room table from you and it was very, very, effective.

Second, I remember being very struck by a remark of Charlene Haddock Seigfried's: speaking before a group of American philosphers 10+ years ago she encouraged us to remember that "Rorty was not the enemy" and she recalled how Rorty had supported feminists long before others had. She was right: it was too easy to dismiss Rorty for not getting Dewey right and failing to deal with him on his own terms.

My own experience of reading Rorty was that 90% made me want to stand up and cheer and 10% made me want to bury my head in my hands. That may sound bad but, now that I think about it, it's a better cheering-to-burying ratio than most of the other philosophers I read.