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.

1 comment:

micah said...

Wow. I read it here first. Now I'll have to browse the other philosoblogs (although that will quickly get repetitive). And thanks for the personal history too; that was interesting.

There are a lot of those old philosocodgers of his generation (and older) still kicking, seems like. Geach, Smart, Fine (who you mentioned), Armstrong... But a steady stream of such obituaries seems to have started with Quine, Lewis, and Davidson, continuing with Strawson last year. We may see a few per year, over the next several years.

Sorry, am I morbid? Probably. ;-)