Sunday, June 24, 2007

Personal Update

I've recently moved, and married.

So, uh, what's new with you?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Knowest that thou hast been rearended by the LORD thy God

The other day I saw a large vehicle (I think it was an SUV) parked by the grocery store, which was owned by someone who loves God so much, they stuck a big ole tetragrammaton in Hebrew script where the license plate is supposed to be.

Yes, the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God (though many Christians are certain they know how to pronounce it, and are happy to do so). I'm not much for the idea of intrinsically sacred words, but if there are such words, then the tetragrammaton is first among them. Jews have not utterred it in millennia, and avoid writing it down lest that copy be destroyed--as would happen if, say, it were plastered on the front of a car, and that car were to run into something--a rather frequent occurrence here in Chicago.

It was no Jew that owned this car. An SUV licensed stamped with the mark of YHWH? Only a Christian, and probably only in America.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rorty among the believers

Naturally, there have been many posts about Rorty's death on philosophy-related blogs, like here and here and here (which even links to little old me). But I'm impressed by how often the news has been mentioned on blogs which don't have all that much to do with philosophy. I knew on some level that Rorty was fairly popular outside of philosophical circles, but I've still been surprised. (Some philosophers would say that this is owing to the fact that Rorty's appeal was limited to the philosophically ignorant. Which, I suppose, I was when I first became a Rorty fan.)

In particular, I'm surprised by how often he's been mentioned, and treated with respect and even admiration, on religion-oriented blogs like SoMA, Jesus Politics (in a series of links), Levellers (link via Jesus Politics), and the conservative First Things (link via Levellers). Rorty was an outspoken atheist who clearly didn't see religion as any sort of personal option, thought that it was about time that modern culture grew up and got over the religious urge (and here he included secular imitations of religion--e.g., what he saw as a tendency to treat scientists as a replacement priesthood), and took a hard line against there being any role for religion in the public political sphere. Yet there are apparently quite a few theists who found him worth reading, and worth engaging on something more than a merely polemical level. (I have in the past detected some distinctly Rorty-flavoured vocabulary coming out of the local divinity school. Of course, I'm unconvinced that the divinity school is particularly religious, so that might not mean much.)

It might even be possible that he managed to convince some theists to reconsider the wish that God had more of a place in political discourse. Well, that's pure speculation on my part, but he presented a good case (the same case that you'll find in Rawls or Habermas--but with better rhetoric). I'm thinking that maybe the "new atheists" should take some notes, assuming they have any interest in going beyond mere polemics, and saying something potentially useful. From the Levellers post:
As a believer, I also appreciate having atheistic dialogue partners like Rorty, rather than the current wave of angry atheists (fundamentalists of unbelief!) like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
But I suppose an "angry atheist" might think that this just shows that Rorty was too soft on religion.

(Incidentally, as I've said before, I don't think Dennett belongs on that list. The basic idea of the book--that the phenomenon of religion should be subject to empirical examination, and that the religious shouldn't shy away from that--sounds fine to me, as far as it goes. Though I suppose I should probably actually read the thing before I really pass judgment on it. Dennett was another big philosophical influence on me, back in the day, so I'm not entirely unbiased here.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Blasphemy and faith?

A post on some blog hosted by TIME, entitled God and the GOP? (via), begins:
When you embark on any dialogue concerning God and politics, you can be certain of raising the ire of the most religious.
With the ire-raising presumably accomplished by statements like the following:
However, it is my personal belief that God is not a fan of partisan politics. Partisan politics are about man’s will, while God is about his will. He is neither Republican nor Democrat. It is my strong belief that God cares about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the individual’s heart, Republican or Democrat.
Which would piss off the "most religious" under the assumption that those believers who go around politicizing religion and Goddifying politics are the "most religious".

The post continues:
Blasphemy is the act of using God to promote a personal goal—financial or political
So it turns out that blasphemy makes you more religious.

Which seems an odd way to think about religion.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

I just read the sad news on Leiter Reports, where Leiter also recounts an anecdote about Rorty which nicely sums up some of the essential features of Rortiness, and how he was received by many of his fellow philosophers.

Rorty takes most of the credit for my decision to go into philosophy. I was studying cognitive science at the time, and that program had some philosophy requirements, which I decided to take care of all at once. So I took a course on philosophy of science, and another on philosophy of language (plus one on modal logic, for no particular reason). Between those two courses, I encountered W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, and Arthur Fine, all of whom struck me as pretty interesting. But in the end they mainly just helped prepare me for what really got me hooked: reading Rorty's "Solidarity or objectivity?" and "Science as solidarity" in the philosophy of science class. A couple of weeks after that I decided to switch majors (...again). I became a convinced follower of Rorty, and spent a number of years basically agreeing with him about absolutely everything.

I've since found points of serious disagreement, but my image of Rorty still forms a substantial portion of my philosophical ego-ideal. For example (from the introduction to his Truth and progress):
I have sometimes been mistakenly commended for originality, simply because I often put apparent dissimilar figures - for example, Nietzsche and James, Davidson and Derrida - in the same box. But there is a difference between being original and being eclectic.


Back in the sixties, when I was a thrusting young analytic philosopher, I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a star-studded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic.... "No trick at all," Hampshire explained, "for an old syncretist hack like me." At that moment I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up.
That's pretty much what I want to be when I grow up, too.

Rorty himself would probably have been somewhat ambivalent about having influenced me to pursue this career path. Here are some of his final words on philosophy (from "Grandeur, profundity, and finitude", in Philosophy as cultural politics, the most recent - and I suppose now final - volume of his collected philosophical papers):
Perhaps the best way to describe the diminishing interest in philosophy among the intellectuals is to say that the infinite is losing its charm. We are becoming commonsensical finitists - people who believe that when we die we rot, that each generation will solve old problems only by creating new ones, that our descendants will look back on much that we have done with incredulous contempt, and that progress toward greater justice and freedom is neither inevitable nor impossible. We are becoming content to see ourselves as a species of animal that makes itself up as it goes along. The secularization of high culture that thinkers like Spinoza and Kant helped bring about has put us in the habit of thinking horizontally rather than vertically - figuring out how we might arrange for a slightly better future rather than looking up to an outermost framework or down into ineffable depths. Philosophers who think all this is just as it should be can take a certain rueful satisfaction in their own steadily increasing irrelevance.
I beg to differ, Professor Rorty, but you'll never be irrelevant to me. RIP.