Philosophy

Richard Rorty, R.I.P.

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Philosopher Richard Rorty is dead at age 75 of pancreatic cancer. The New York Times obit. The summation, from it, of his pragmatic brand of philosophy:

When his 1979 book "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" came out, it upended conventional views about the very purpose and goals of philosophy. The widespread notion that the philosopher's primary duty was to figure out what we can and cannot know was poppycock, Mr. Rorty argued. Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing. To accomplish this, he 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.

Tyler Cowen, a sometime reason contributor, explains some reasons that economists might want to be familiar with Rorty. A sample:

He emphasized that there is no unique way to translate the results of a model into an interpretation of the real world. This is trivial for those who know it, but not everyone does.

That means when DSquared writes: "[The case for free trade] can't be derived in an economy with a positive rate of profit; Ian Steedman proved this one in a series of papers discussed on Rob Vienneau's blog" the correct response is one never thought it could be derived in the first place…..

…Rorty stressed the importance of knowing fiction and the humanities for the social sciences or policy assessment.

A highly critical reason review of Rorty's book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Alan Charles Kors, from our Dec. 1998 issue. A sample that sums up Rorty's political thinking:

For Rorty, who has moved from analytic philosophy to skeptical pragmatism to terminal silliness, the real problem is that contempt for country and the illusion of scientific truth have led leftists away from their rightful role as "agents" into a self-defeating role as "spectators." Agents do things like organize effective coalitions to take the fruits of one person's labor or estate and give it to another person. Spectators do things like teach university courses about phallogocentric hegemonies…..

Rorty believes there was a time when the left was Whitmanesque, celebrating America, despite her faults, as a set of possibilities, and when it was imbued with the spirit of John Dewey, eschewing scientific certainties and seeking a civic consensus on what the nation could become and achieve. Marx got in the way. He had an unfortunate commitment to notions of science and historical certainty. There went Whitman's festive spirit and Dewey's democratic pragmatism.

The New Left got in the way. It could have thought of certain phenomena (slavery, Jim Crow, exploitation, Vietnam, and the like) as our "tragedies," but instead it thought of them as our "sins," which made America unforgiveable rather than something that could be transcended and achieved. This alienated people who belonged to unions and rather liked their country……

Postmodernism got in the way. It was attracted to science, in Rorty's singular estimation. With no trace of irony, he writes that "the Foucauldian Left represents an unfortunate regression to the Marxist obsession with scientific rigor." It spoke a jargon that put off the average working guy. It engaged in speculation instead of reformist coalition building.

Rorty's fondest hope for the species is that the "Cultural Left," which has done so much to reduce cultural "sadism" through what the defenders of the corporations call "political correctness," be united with the "Reformist Left," creating an effective coalition, just in the nick of time, to defeat the forces of "selfishness."

Lefty critic of the Democratic Party and conventional liberals Eric Lott uses Rorty as an example of weak-kneed Democratic thinking that is keeping the progressive man down–see my review of Lott's recent book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual.

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  1. Stanley Cavell (_Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome : The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism_) on pragmatism as compared with perfectionism :

    “For Dewey the relation between science and technology is unproblematic, even definitive, whereas for Emerson the power manifested in technology and its attendant concepts of intelligence and power and change and improvement are in contest with the work, and the concept of the work, of realizing the world each human is empowered to think. For an Emersonian, the Deweyan is apt to seem an enlightened child, toying with the means of destruction, stinting the means of instruction, of provoking the self to work ; for the Deweyan the Emersonian is apt to look, at best, like a Deweyan.” p.15-16

    I think Rorty never got tha

  2. It would be great fun to agree with Rorty. Ah, to deny any conception of truth as correspondence! It would allow me a level of sophistication that my current critical commonsensism does not permit. I could feel oh-so-superior to nearly everybody else, including Plato and Aristotle.

    But every time I tried to read Rorty, his modifiers pile up and my incredulity rises, like vomit in the mouth. What did I read him as saying? “Truth is a mere function of propositions.” MERE?

    I just looked at the opening of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” again. What a silly opening gambit. I’m tempted to throw a book at Rorty, saying, “Hey: Read John Searle.” But Rorty’s dead.

    Maybe I’ll go back and read his work, and next time I won’t be repelled. But Searle’s naturalism and Santayana’s critical realism still strike me as closer to a reasonable view of human experience than Rorty’s thoughts on contingency, irony, and non-truth.

  3. “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,” HA! I read somewhere that ‘…truth is merely the last opinion left standing…’ Jeez.

  4. I’m not as up on pragmatism as I probably should be. That is likely due to the fact that what I have read of Rorty et el. has struck me as a load of bunk.

    Pragmatism seems to make the anthropocentric leap of “we don’t know” to “there is not” far to easily. Its socio-political outcomes seem to lead very quickly to the worst kind of identity-politics economy of influence.

  5. “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,” HA! I read somewhere that ‘…truth is merely the last opinion left standing…’ Jeez.

    I added appropriate stress to aid you in your confusion. Rorty certainly did not believe (at least not in the excellent “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”) that truth amounts to whatever opinions may thrive in whatever social system may exist. His major thrust is that liberalism, an open society, a state of curiosity, et cetera, can be independently understood, and accepted as our best basis for ultimately calling things “true” or “good” or other grandiose terms (to the extent we absolutely must use them).

  6. By the way, I do feel this loss. Sometimes I really wish we could lower flags for a Nozick or Rorty rather than a Gerald Ford.

  7. There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with

    Re-stressed to make his actual point, which the text is impressively organized to make you pass over. As always, he was speaking only of, and to, his peers, as it was only their future that concerned him.

    Most. Elitist. Esoteric. Philosopher. Ever.

  8. Human beings should focus on what they do to cope with daily life and not on what they discover by theorizing. … “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.

    Isn’t that what Aristotle said about Plato?

  9. 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…

    So, if this claim is true and if we don’t let Rorty get away with this claim, then it is untrue?

    I think that Rorty gives the game away with that slippery inclusion of “open.” Why that word? There must be a reason. Why does the exchange have to be “open”? What constitutes an “open” exchange? Are “open” exchanges more likely to produce truth than “closed” exchanges? If so, why? Because of some property that truth has apart from our discussions about it? Uh oh.

  10. “Most. Elitist. Esoteric. Philosopher. Ever.”

    you’ve never read julius evola, have you?

    a prof of mine wrote a book, somewhat critical, about rorty. i have to get around to reading it.

  11. OMG! OMG! OMG!

    that’s right! Julius Uvula. Talking about dangling over the gorge of sanity!

  12. i actually like evola’s book on tantra quite a bit. revolt against the modern world is worth reading if you’re interested in esoterica somewhat.

    but ride the tiger always left me flat.

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